March 27, 2011

Ponting's time is up

If he quits the captaincy now, he'll be remembered as a beaten and bloodied warrior who refused to bow down. Also, it's just the right time for Clarke to fill his shoes

There comes a time in every cricket captain's career - make that every sporting, political or business leader - when he reaches his use-by date. Ricky Ponting's captaincy, despite a typically defiant, "I'll-bloody-show-you" century in the World Cup quarter-final, has reached that stage.

During the summer there were the obvious signs: his elongated argument with umpire Aleem Dar in the Ashes series and his childish ball-throwing tantrum following a collision with Steve Smith while going for a catch in a World Cup game.

Then there were the more subtle indicators. His frenzied field changes in the Adelaide Test as the England batsmen pummelled the bowling. This was part of a pattern of captaincy during the Ashes series that smacked of Ponting trying to prove to all the doubters that he was an imaginative skipper. Finally there is his general inability to nurture confidence in spinners following Shane Warne's retirement.

However, it's more than just field placings and an ever-diminishing short fuse. There comes a time when the dressing-room personnel change to the point where the atmosphere is just not the same; a time when the players have heard all the rallying speeches and they go in one ear and out the other; a time when it's right for a different captain to lead a new team.

Retirement, whether it be from the captaincy or as a player, is a selfish decision; it only has to please one person. If, on the other hand the selectors are forced to replace Ponting as captain, it'll be for a number of reasons, but the most valid one is: the time is right for Michael Clarke.

Around 28 is the ideal age to take over the Australian captaincy. That's when maturity is attained as a player and an international cricketer. A good and knowledgeable cricketer will have formed his ideas on leadership from watching and listening to others and from touring the globe. Most importantly, the player-cum-captain then has around five good years to stamp his authority on the team.

It's no good giving the captaincy to a player who is past his playing prime, as this doesn't allow him to do justice to the job. The time is right for Clarke to take over, and there were signs during the ODI series with England that he'll at least have a more positive influence on young spinners than Ponting.

Make no mistake, Ponting has been a good captain. A Test-winning percentage in excess of 60 and two World Cups without a defeat is a record of which anyone can be proud. And he's achieved all that while overcoming the largest turnover of top-class players of any Australian captain and still managing to win at an above average rate.

Ponting may not be a leader who is universally loved but that is what defines him as a cricketer. He doesn't do things for effect. There's only ever been one motivation behind Ponting's cricket; the only logical one - to win the match.

In the end many leaders succumb to the lure of power and stay on too long. It's like a drug and they have to have more. There are signs that Ponting has had a whiff, but hopefully he emulates Bill Clinton who said: "I didn't inhale."

Ponting's magnificent fighting century and on-field courage in the losing World Cup quarter-final left an image of a beaten and bloodied warrior but one who hadn't been bowed. Next to going out a winner, that's the best way to finish a successful reign.

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