January 2, 2011

Ponting's captaincy is over, Australia's turmoil isn't

Ricky Ponting was often a good captain, sometimes one who tried too hard. He can still play on as a batsman, though

The SCG was always going to be the right time and place for Ricky Ponting to relinquish the Test captaincy. Like a politician intoxicated by power, Ponting has talked about extending his leadership maybe as far as the 2013 Ashes series. This is unrealistic, as captains have a use-by-date. Their power to inspire wanes as personnel change and new ideas are required. A fresh side requires a younger captain; it needs to be his team.

Also, the future captain needs to be installed at a time that's right for his career, rather than at the whim of the incumbent. Unfortunately for Ponting, as this roller-coaster Ashes series evolved it became obvious his exit wasn't going to be the glamorous type a player of his calibre deserves. In the end his untimely injury made it a forgettable departure.

There'll be a tendency to blame Ricky Ponting for the chaos that surrounds Australian cricket. It's certainly a mess but it's far from all Ponting's making. In fact it was only Ponting's prodigious skill with the bat that kept the great Australian slide at bay for so long. Following the retirement of Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, the Australian bowling regressed from difficult to overcome to beatable. It was Ponting's ability to make decisive runs that helped Australia amass substantial totals, which in turn enabled the weakened bowling attack to still win matches. When Ponting's bat failed him the awful truth was exposed. The Australian batting was fragile without him dominating at three, and the bowling was extremely inconsistent. In the end, the team-mates he'd protected weren't able to cover his back when he needed their help.

For a long time he was a good captain. In his debut series at the helm, Australia trailed on the first innings in all three Tests and yet on each occasion they fought back to defeat Sri Lanka on their own turf. This sort of feat can only be achieved with a talented team, but it also requires a captain with great resolve. When Ponting had Warne and McGrath in the attack, his team won at a superior rate to Steve Waugh's highly acclaimed side.

However, there were signs the brutal honesty that served him so well earlier in his career - when he publicly declared he had a drinking problem - and following the 2005 Ashes loss, wasn't as conspicuous in his hour of need.

When Ponting's bat failed him the awful truth was exposed. The Australian batting was fragile without him dominating at three, and the bowling was extremely inconsistent

His preference for players appeared to veer more towards like and dislike rather than realistic cricket appraisal. His captaincy style developed into one of rapid-fire field changes, designed perhaps to indicate a man of action but which made him look like a captain who was trying too hard and confusing his bowlers.

The defiant streak that fuelled his batting but got him into hot water as a young player occasionally surfaced. When he felt umpires were in the wrong it quickly turned into a siege situation, where he imagined his team was always on the wrong end of debatable decisions. The prolonged haranguing of the two umpires at the MCG was an indication he'd reached the end of his reign.

Ponting's exit from the captaincy was a sad one but that's the reality of sport; no one writes a script. He has been a top-class batsman and often a good captain, and at other times one who has floundered. He deserves the opportunity to defend Australia's World Cup title as captain, and if he decides to play on it should only be as a batsman.

The replacement captain for the SCG is Michael Clarke. He probably felt he was saying the right thing by indicating he wouldn't want to captain Ponting in Test matches. However, in the same way as Ponting doesn't dictate how long he captains, players don't get to choose who they serve under.

If Clarke is the future Test captain he has a difficult road ahead: an inexperienced and fragile side, his own form to be resurrected, and a controversial public image to overcome. He probably doesn't also need the presence of a past captain shadowing his every move.

Nevertheless, if Ponting does decide to play on there's every chance his form will warrant Test selection. This summer has been one of turmoil for Australian cricket and there's every indication that unlike Ponting's Test captaincy, the chaos isn't over.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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