Hello world!

In defense of the Captaincy of RT Ponting, and other apologies.
by Scott Wickstein

Sorry for the lack of posts. Real life, day job, weekend parties, hangovers, etc. Thank goodness I’ve got today off, otherwise I’d not be able to post this, either.

Reader and commenter Manish asked earlier this month:
Scott, you say “He has many splendid attributes as a captain, mind you” for Ponting. I dont even see that. Can you tell me why you feel he is any good as captain ? This is not a new debate for me, obviously this wasn’t being discussed in such forums earlier because Aus were winning everything. But since we in India had seen him do badly in loosing situations, we knew he was not good (and neither is Gilchrist, for that matter).
You are right, maybe Lehman was the brain (whatever little bit was needed by that dominant Aus side). Warney might help.

My full views on captaincy would occupy the good part of a doctoral dissertation, but in so far as it applies to Ricky Ponting, I thought I would write a few paragraphs on my views of his leadership, coming into his biggest challenge so far.

The first thing to bear in mind is Richie Benaud’s maxim on captaincy- that it is 90% luck, and 10% skill, but do not try it without that 10%.

The second thing to bear in mind when discussing any captain of an international cricket team, is that we on the outside only get a distorted view of his work. Basically, all that the outside observer can see is a picture of the captain’s tactical abilities. And that is overwhelmingly the captain’s tactics while in the field. So even there, we only see half the picture, although granted, it is a vital picture.

To my mind, there are four key parts to the job. Tactician. Leader. Inspiration. Public Figure.

The tactician is what we see- the bowling changes, the field placements, and bowling strategies to particular batsmen.

The leader is the captain as player- how well does he do his day job.

Inspiration is the captain as the guiding spirit of the team. How well does he knit the desires, abilities and talents of the ten other men into one ‘cricketing machine’ as Bob Simpson once put it. And how well does he do at getting the best out of those men?

Public figure is the captain as media spokesman, figurehead, etc. This is more important than it sounds. A captain who has a good image, and a decent relationship with the cricketing press will be granted more slack under pressure then a captain with a surly attitude to journalists. It is still a side note compared to the other three aspects, but it should not be under-rated, either.

First, as a tactician, as noted here and elsewhere, Ponting is perceived to be a poor captain. There seems a widespread consensus that he is reactive, not proactive, and Kerry O’Keefe on television last night was once again bemoaning his conservatism.

To his very great credit, Ponting seems aware of this weakness, and is willing to listen to others; the problem in this series is that the really fine tactical minds in Australian cricket have retired from the ODI game. Ponting will find Warne’s return for the Tests a great relief.

In his ‘World Cup Diary’, Ponting gave an insight into his methods of operation. In terms of setting gameplans, Ponting is happy to delegate. Bowlers are grouped together and allowed free reign to work out plans; you can see this in effect with McGrath and Lee against the English openers. Given the technological and coaching resources available to teams these days, this is probably the right way to go.

Ponting, as a leader, is a major batsman on the world stage. In full flight, he can be as destructive as any batsmen going around, and in the World Cup Final, he lead from the front with perhaps his finest ODI innings.

Ponting as an Inspiration, that is, how well does he bring his team together and get the best out of them. This is quite as important as tactical abilities, and yet we can not really see how a captain does in this job, because we do not get to hear his team talks, his one-to-one talks with players. What is he saying to Jason Gillespie lately?

Yet one need only point to the 2003 World Cup to suggest that Ponting is outstanding in this role. First Warne, then Gillespie was lost to the squad, there were lots of dramas about going to Zimbabwe, and there was a ‘bits and pieces’ feel to the squad. Several times, the batting failed only to be rescued by the grand and unlikely duo of Bevan and Bichel. Yet, they went through the tournament undefeated, and won the final by a large margin. And the emergence of Andrew Symonds as a key performer seems entirely Ponting’s own work; after years of underperformance, Ponting’s public support and private encouragement paid off in spectacular style.

Under Ponting, Australia have learned to fight back more when under pressure. His first Test job was the tour to Sri Lanka, and even though Australia trailed in the first innings in all three Tests, they fought back to win. This suggests a wonderful team spirit.

As a public figure, Ponting seems to be a pleasant contrast to the often abrasive Steve Waugh. After his youthful drinking indescretions, Ponting looks to have matured into the responsible face of Australian cricket. His press conferences and quotes rarely reach great heights. But they do not go wrong; his performance in the media after the upset against Bangladesh suggests a certain grace under pressure.

In conclusion, while Ponting has his weakness as a captain, he also brings to the job major strengths and talents, and his record is outstanding, the recent hiccups notwithstanding. I am confident that by the end of the summer, with the Ashes secure, he will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

Posted by Scott Wickstein at 09:14 AM Comments (12) | Cricket
July 04, 2005
Hitting the high notes.
by Scott Wickstein

Pointless debating question for the week. I think we can safely say that the Australian team is not quite as potent as it once was. But what WAS the strongest point of this great Australian team of this era? The 16 match streak?

My own match that I would put at the absolute peak of Australia’s performance would be the First Test against South Africa in Joh’burg in early 2002. South Africa fancied they were a good side and Australia crushed them by an innings and 360 runs. Given the strength of the opposition and the comprehensivness of the defeat Australia inflicted, I can not imagine a more dominating performance then this.

So, what is your ‘high point’?

Posted by Scott Wickstein at 06:22 PM Comments (8) | Cricket
Three in a row for the master of Wimbledon
by Jonathan Pearce

In the end it was not even close. Roger Federer, the Swiss king of modern tennis, brushed Andy Roddick aside to win his third men’s singles title in a row with some breathtaking tennis.

Roddick, currently the number two seed, is a superb player who builds his game around a powerful serve but Federer had the measure of the fellow from the off, getting a high percentage of returns in and playing a deft array of shots that put in far ahead of his peers. I admired Sampras, Agassi, MacEnroe and the rest but in my mind Federer is probably the most complete player I have ever seen. I cannot really compare him with Rod Laver, the master of the 60s, but I have not seen such a cool operator with such a variety of shots.

Federer is in his early 20s and has a remarkably cool demeanour even when the pressure is on and by all accounts a nice guy off the court as well. I suspect that barring serious injury or the arrival of a player with miracle powers, Federer will be top of the tennis tree for a few years to come.

Posted by Jonathan Pearce at 06:51 AM Comments (10) | Tennis
July 03, 2005
Cricket and Baseball in the United States
by Scott Wickstein

Interesting article by Ed Smith on how baseball swamped cricket in American sporting affections.

Posted by Scott Wickstein at 04:26 PM Comments (0) | Cricket
A thrill a minute.
by Scott Wickstein

Hollywood scriptwriters would not get away with a story-line like the NatWest series final.

If there were more twists and turns then a Hollywood blockbuster, at least the actors in this drama were credible. Each innings started with Australia off to a flying start, and then England pegging them back until parity was restored.

No doubt the captains will be bemoaning the pitch. It had a lot of seam and bounce, and even the odd Gillespie delivery got some alarming zip. However, to me, that is a GOOD pitch, as I percieve cricket to be a contest between batsmen and bowler, not a batathon.

There was no contest in the first six overs, though, as England’s new ball bowlers pitched the ball up, looking for swing that was not there. Gilchrist hammered them, taking four 4’s in an over off Simon Jones.

Once the lines were adjusted, poor Australian shot selection did the rest. And can someone explain to me why Jones and Gough are ‘preferred’ to Harmison and Flintoff with the new ball?

Australia slumped to 5 for 93 before Symonds and Hussey dug in. And Vaughan made an error that I thought at the time might have been critical; he took off his strike bowlers and brought on Giles and Collingwood. These worthy gentlemen kept it tight, Australia never regained their batting impetus, but England played safety first and threw away the chance to bowl Australia out for 130.

Symonds innings was interesting- he totally adjusted to the difficult conditions, understood that wicket preservation was far more important then shot selection, and batted accordingly. He demonstrated in the process that he does not really have the technique to make it in the Test side- clearly he’s more comfortable with the bash and grab game. Mike Hussey though was something else; he looked very comfortable indeed. Both these men have had long stints in the county game, and they used that experience to their advantage.

Australia, without much dignity it must be said, scrambled to 196. At the break, I thought that was 20 runs short, but with McGrath and Lee, anything could happen. England had hoped the sun would break through in the afternoon, but it never did; the entire match was played in grey, dank conditions.

And it did. England collapsed to be 5 for 33, a combination of fine new ball bowling and very poor shot selection. The emotion in the players was palpable; Australian self-belief rising, and English fear of defeat palpable. Lee was his by now customary mix of erratica; a dreadful beamer nearly hit Trescothick, while a corker blasted Andrew Strauss. McGrath was, McGrathy (thanks, Will).

As Geriant Jones and Paul Collingwood settled in, Ponting had a difficult decision to make; to change to his second tier bowlers, or to bowl Lee and McGrath out. He pulled them out of the attack with Lee still having four overs left and McGrath three (His first spell was 7-3-9-3). In hindsight, this was the critical error; had he taken the gamble it is difficult to see how further loss of wickets could be prevented.

Gillespie and Symonds (playing here as a fourth seamer) were able to keep it tight and England were kept below three runs an over for the better part of their innings, but G. Jones and Collingwood were able to dig in; they ended up putting on 116.

When Geriant Jones was finally dismissed, England still needed 36 at more then a run a ball, but Ponting had by now made a further error, losing faith in his spinner, Brad Hogg, and turning to military medium Mike Hussey. This is a standard error, as a general rule, tailenders much prefer a medium pacer to a spinner with Hogg’s variations, even if he’s not bowling that well. By the time Lee and McGrath returned, they were unable to regain the zest of the start of England’s innings, and England scrambled to an unlikely tie.

If I sound critical of Ponting’s captaincy, well, I am. Since Lehmann’s retirement from the game, Ponting’s tactical moves have been too conventional and lacking entirely in creativity and spark. He has many splendid attributes as a captain, mind you. But a tactician he aint. Warne’s return to the Test side will be a welcome return to Ponting for many reasons, not the least of which was his cricketing brain.

Actually Vaughan had a poor match as well. In fact, this was the ultimate bowlers match all round, and need I say it, it was a much better match for it. There’s nothing really wrong with ODI cricket that a few spicy pitches would not fix, and instead they juggle the rules to make it even harder for the bowlers. Stupid ICC.

So a tie, then, but England are the undoubted winners in a broader sense. It was a great ‘great escape’ in the grand English tradition, and Australia will rue the missed opportunity to land a knockout punch on their rivals.

For the Ashes, what does this mean? Well, my view is that England will take heart that they can fight back from a corner here. Self belief is one of those intangible assets, you can not measure it, but you know it makes a huge difference to the win-loss ratio. Mind you the frame of mind of England’s batsmen when McGrath has the ball in hand has to be a worry. They were really worried, and they were not much better when Lee was bowling. As for Pieterson, you want to drop Thorpe for this guy???

For Australia, the failure to knock England out will be a depletion of the self-belief, and seeds of doubt about Ponting’s leadership may well have been planted. The batsmen will have work to do against England’s pace attack and this will not be the usual easy ride. The days of facing gentle English seamers are over. And concerns about bowling depth once again were reinforced. However, on the plus column, Lee’s pace and McGrath’s general excellence give good heart.

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