Ricky Ponting is finding leading Australia unfamiliar hard work
© Getty Images|
Ricky Ponting was touted as Test captain when a teenager, but after 18 months in the job the view has become uncomfortably hazy. With his side detouring from their standard steamrollering, Ponting is in a situation where he has to do more than act as guide from the dressing room to the middle and wait for wickets.
Chewing gum like his predecessors Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor, Ponting is battling to gain the same jaw-clenching authority. The unusual pressure is showing and during the past two Tests he has struggled with his decisions.
His troops are contributing to the steely, grumpy glare, but through the opening days at Edgbaston and Old Trafford he was unable to offer inspiration to bowlers or sloppy fielders as England crashed totals of 407 and 341 for 5. They are numbers smacking of a lack of control.
Prodigies arrive with much expectation and Ponting's brain is considered "great" among his contemporaries. When batting the description is rarely in doubt, but flaws are appearing in his arm-waving and settling of bowling combinations. Picking a team and reading the pitch are also of series-winning concern.
After Edgbaston, Ponting finally admitted to a mistake at the toss and today made one before the flicking of the coin in choosing Jason Gillespie. A third seamer was probably a necessity to cover for the returning Glenn McGrath, and the fresh-from-hospital Brett Lee, but his faith in Gillespie must have totally evaporated after he was dismantled by Michael Vaughan.
At his best Gillespie can whizz down the supermarket aisles with his trolley as a go-kart. On this tour his dress and demeanour are more like someone using the device to hold their worldly possessions. It's hard to know how much longer he will call Test cricket home after going for six runs an over.
Struggling since June and delivering medium pace, Gillespie was given the ball straight after lunch when Vaughan was still fresh. "We feel we have some very good plans in place for Michael," Ponting said before the match. "His dismissal in the second innings at Edgbaston was exactly how we want to get him out."
McGrath and Lee, who struck twice late in the day, have knocked down his stumps three times - McGrath did it again off a no-ball when Vaughan was 45 - but were not used in tandem. Instead of aiming for the top of off they delivered well above it on the type of pitch Vaughan dominated in Australia.
The treatment of Gillespie, who has 250 wickets but only ten this year, became cruel after tea when he was taken to by Vaughan, who fiercely pulled, flicked and drove. Gillespie's spirit finally looked broken, team-mates stood with hands on hips like teachers on playground duty and Michael Kasprowicz, Shaun Tait, Stuart Clark and Stuart MacGill watched from the boundary.
However, Gillespie was only one of Ponting's problems as dropped catches and half-chances came at a frightening rate and Michael Clarke was missing with a lower-back injury. Ponting ran around for conferences with his bowlers, rubbed his Lord's-scarred cheek and tried men in strange places, including a very straight, short mid-off copied off Vaughan.
Ponting's tactical gambles involved leaving Warne, who needed one wicket to reach 600, at slip for the first 33 overs, and bringing on Simon Katich for his casual chinaman bowling before and after tea, which was another indication that the lack of spin in the pitch had been under-estimated. Warne was a threat for the rest of the afternoon while Katich claimed Vaughan in the deep. However, Ponting's risk to play McGrath was brave and could have been wildly successful if not for poor catching and a correctly called no-ball.
With Adam Gilchrist, the vice-captain, spilling two of the chances, Australia can add the leadership group to their list of concerns. In troubled times the mistakes are magnified and over-analysed, but with the series nearing the halfway point Ponting must quickly start fixing some of the important ones.
Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo