Don't be afraid (or Afridi) of Aussies

Pakistan are usual shambles but Ashes pointers for England are that Ponting's men are not all-powerful
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It would be impossible to make up the Pakistan cricket team. Whatever they do, however they do it, they remain constantly enthralling, a source of stunning twists and turns. By now we should all know that just when you think that nothing else can happen to stretch credulity, then something does.

So it was that having been duffed up by Australia, mugged by a part-time spinner, they completely deflected attention from the winners at Lord's on Friday. Shahid Afridi, their captain, quit mid-tour, or actually before it had barely begun.

He was a surprise appointment following a turbulent winter in Australia, though there really did seem to be nobody else. It was only a week ago that the tour manager, Yawar Saeed, said of Afridi: "I'm very confident he's going to be OK." Rarely can optimism have been so quickly confounded. OK? Afridi was lamentable, an indisciplined disaster whose sole virtue, bless him, was to recognise that he did not have the temperament for Test cricket. Now, who, apart from the whole world, could have told the Pakistan Cricket Board that?

Afridi declared that the Second Test at Headingley on Wednesday would be his last, though he is likely to miss it with a side strain. Salman Butt, the left-hander who scored 63 and 92 at Lord's, was appointed as his successor yesterday. Despite a modest Test record, Butt is a logical choice to lead against England in the four Tests that immediately follow the mini-series with Australia.

To a cursory glance the First Test at Lord's was a predictable disintegration by Pakistan. They were bowled out twice by different part-time bowlers, Shane Watson in the first innings and Marcus North in the second. It is difficult to decide which was the greater transgression.

If the match told plenty that was already feared about Pakistan, it also gave something away about Australia, another source of limitless fascination because of the Ashes this winter. Bar a tweak here or there – the return of Brad Haddin behind the stumps, the replacement of the spinner – this is the team that Australia want to play against England.

The evidence of Lord's is that England should not be afraid. Australia simply do not emanate the power that once seemed destined to last forever. They remain tough, capable cricketers but in almost every case it does not go beyond that.

Ricky Ponting, their captain, is a wholly admirable batsman on his fifth tour of England but he now has a view down the other side of the mountain and it may soon be coming into full focus. The Lord's effect aside – he has never played well there – Ponting has scored one Test hundred in his past 23 innings. True, that was 209 last winter against Pakistan, but since the much-sought century he made against India in Bangalore in late 2008, a statement reaffirming his place among the greatest of players, he has played in 25 matches, batted 44 times and has an average slightly below 40.

For an Australian captain that does not appear quite right. In the same period, in the same matches, Michael Clarke, the vice-captain, averages almost 19 runs an innings more and has scored seven hundreds to Ponting's three. Similarly, Mike Hussey, with a career average of 52 – it was once almost 80 – is down to the mid- thirties in that period.

They will all have something special for England this winter and Ponting, being Ponting, will probably burst forth this week at Leeds, where 13 years ago he scored the first of his 39 Test hundreds. But the conclusion must be that he is never quite going to have the command in Test cricket that he once did, and that may have a harmful effect on his captaincy.

Small margins are at stake and maybe reflexes and eyes start to decline slightly, though, contradictorily, the way Ponting catches the ball suggests that these still remain intact. North, who failed twice with the bat at Lord's, is clinging on to his place and exasperating Aussie followers. Since he made two hundreds (and a 96) in the 2009 Ashes, North has had 14 Test innings and 10 times failed to go beyond 21. He does not exude the air of a Test No 6.

It is Australia's bowling that usually arouses scrutiny because it no longer contains either superstars or geniuses. So it proved at Lord's, though Ben Hilfenhaus gets better with every viewing, an authentic international bowler of pace, accuracy and sharp intelligence. Mitchell Johnson, the world cricketer of the year, remains an enigma, a concoction of dross and unplayability.

Perhaps, however, it was significant that it was not the frontline bowlers who did for Pakistan. More evidence for the winter may be gathered at Headingley. The search for hints, clues, pointers, anything, is compulsive.

Comments