Punter’s Predicament

A good trick in life is to get out while you’re ahead. No one wants to be stuck with the cleanup when the party’s over. It’s often better for your reputation to remain a vision of eternally splendid youth, than to suffer the indignities of ageing. To be Jim Morrison, not Mick Jagger.

Team sports don’t always allow this luxury. You can’t guarantee that your prime will coincide with others’. The many factors that create champion teams don’t generally organise themselves to a preordained script.

Australia’s cricket captain may have occasionally indulged in such thinking over the last few years. Although, in all likelihood, he refused to entertain these thoughts for long. Nostalgic reflection tends to get in the way when there are battles to be fought, foes to be conquered. Ricky Ponting still seems to have the taste for the contest, even if the forces at his disposal are diminished.

Australian cricket enjoyed a long, uninterrupted party until recently. As the last champion left standing, it has fallen to Punter to deal with the aftermath and help shape the path forward. Whoever inherited this task would have expected to wear a few lumps along the way.

As an old Mowbray boy, Punter wouldn’t be too alarmed by a few lumps. Although tempered by experience, the young man who wore a shiner from a Bourbon and Beefsteak imbroglio will not have disappeared entirely. He didn’t let that stop him then, so he’s unlikely to unduly fret now.

A combative stubbornness has been crucial to Punter’s ascension to the peak of his sport. It is also a recurring feature of his captaincy. Like many strengths, there also comes a time when it can work against you.

Opinions regarding the merits of the Punter incumbency have ranged throughout the land from the day he took possession of the captaincy. Several of my fellow Almanackers have written eloquently about various shortcomings and misdemeanours. Other scribes have demanded his head. Many of these criticisms relate to incidents where the skipper’s stubborn determination has crossed a line to become something less attractive.

The acrimonious Sydney test of January 2008 demonstrated that victory could be achieved without honour. Whilst no one emerged from that game with reputation enhanced, the Aussie skipper’s hard-nosed attitude, where diplomacy was needed, did not help matters. Some say that’s the Australian way. In this instance, I think it more the Ponting way.

A more serious blot occurred in November of the same year in Nagpur. At a crucial moment, with both test and series in the balance, the captain’s interests seemed to override the team’s. Over rates took precedence above tactics and precious momentum was lost. How this tallied with notions of team above all was never explained. I can’t find any equivalent incident in Australian test history, yet no serious inquiry was deemed required. Such are the vagaries of modern cricket administration.

To be fair, Ponting seems to have subsequently strived to leave these incidents well behind. The recent Ashes tour held many taunts and frustrations, yet the skipper remained a model of sportsmanship.

So if the attitude has improved in some respects, what of the tactics? In the days of Warne and McGrath tactics were rarely a challenge, whoever was captain. Things are trickier now.

Some captains were renowned for their feel for the game, an ability to pluck a moment of inspiration, or an aggressive tendency to make the play. Benaud, Taylor and Chappell I. spring to mind in this regard. Punter will never join this list.

Under pressure, his inclination is to stick with the known quantity- even when they are struggling- in the hope they will come good. Whilst faith is admirable, his captaincy needs the nimbleness of his footwork to seize the moment. Newcomers seem required to earn the skipper’s trust before he’ll consider them in a clutch moment. This caution has shown its cost in every series he’s overseen. Too often now, the game is allowed to drift once Plan A has failed. To compound this, spin bowlers whose names aren’t Shane seem somewhat of a mystery still.

Ponting’s captaincy is at its strongest when he leads from the front with his batting, when he sinks his teeth into a contest and drags the others with him. As the senior pro, he carries a heavy responsibility to lead by example. There have been times when this has succeeded admirably. The series win in South Africa and the recent one dayers in India were both won against expectation and under some duress. But when the opposition chooses to dispute the issue, team performances are now worryingly inconsistent. We either steamroll or struggle.

With the generational change in the team, this situation isn’t entirely the captain’s fault. But it is fair to ask if he has made the most of the available resources. To a significant extent, his captaincy reputation will rest on the performance of individuals whose cause he has championed. Watson and Hauritz are two such beneficiaries, and they will need to vindicate the captain’s support better than that other favourite, Symonds.

Others seem to have been denied equal opportunity. There is a strong suspicion they have incurred the captain’s disfavour. Issues such as this date back to before the time of Bradman, but the fact remains that a dressing room with the hint of favouritism will always provoke questions and invite criticism. It is one thing to close ranks, a different thing altogether to run a closed shop.

The captain has expressed a desire to stay until the next England Ashes tour. Given his competitive nature, this seems only natural. The desire to redeem two losing tours must be powerful. His batting currently justifies his position without question. But a year can be a long time in cricket; just ask Jason Gillespie or Matthew Hayden.

If he remains, it will surely be as captain. His stature would be a distraction for any successor. And there is no doubt the team would miss his batting if it was denied. Therein lies a dilemma for Australian cricket. It is legitimate to speculate if the team’s longer term development would be served by a fresh leadership vision. This is not to detract from Ponting’s outstanding contribution to Australian cricket.

It seems highly unlikely Ponting would be usurped without his consent. Cricket Australia seems disinclined to witch hunts, which is proper, for they are usually destructive. It is natural for the sporting fortunes of countries to ebb and flow. But world cricket is not currently at a high point. Australia should expect to do well in most company at present. It is battling to do so. Accountability should be possible without witch hunts, and if there is no accountability, then complacency surely follows. For a couple of years now, it has been hard to detect a real sense of long term direction in team selection or operation.

Whenever his time comes, Ricky Ponting should take pleasure and pride in a career well played. His record as a batsman speaks for itself. Whatever his shortcomings as captain, his commitment has never been in doubt. If selection panel or coach are lacking, he shouldn’t bear responsibility for the decisions others should be qualified to make. Retirement shouldn’t be feared; after all, I’m sure there are still consolations in being Mick Jagger.

About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Livable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he has been a Carlton member for more than 30 years.

Comments

  1. Richard E. Jones says:

    JOHN: visited the grave of James Douglas Morrison at Paris’ Pere Lachaise cemetery last month.
    Never knew the middle name of the Doors’ frontman until that day. Never knew he had one, to be honest.
    The tomb and environs are barricaded off. Apparently too many episodes of needle sticking and fornication on the tomb itself led cemetery rangers to take this step.
    Mind you, at Oscar Wilde’s grave indelible pink kises are all over his site with a portion of the male statuary’s stone appendages neatly excised. Naturally, there are pink kisses on the remaining portions.
    And yeah, there are consolations in being Mick Jagger. He heads up the greatest rock n roll outfit ever seen (and heard) on this planet.

  2. John Butler says:

    Richard

    I think I could live quite comfortably with the burden of being Mick. It’s just a shame he gave up trying to seriously write songs 25 years ago. If you must have another occupation, squiring super-models isn’t a bad alternative.

    I believe Mr Morrison would have approved of the fornicating on his tomb (and, sadly, probably the needle sticking too).

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