John Benaud View from Oz: Aussies pay price for Lee's lucky-dip approach

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The Independent Online

You've got to hand it to old opening bowlers, the urge to commit mayhem runs deep. The irony is that in other eras Australian captains were only bounced by the enemy: Botham, Trueman and Co. Lillee wants Shane Warne to toss the coin, just one mouth in a big cheer-squad that appreciates the legendary spinner's on-field nous. On the other side of the rope are the directors of Cricket Australia, who remain nervous about the next off-field no-brainer Warne might deliver.

Ponting once practised biffo outside a Sydney nightclub and fancies a punt on the greyhounds, but provided that there's not a quirky drug test or a phone chat with an Indian bookie in the offing, the directors will continue to back their judgement - unless this Ashes split decision were to become a flood of major losses. Then Pointing would face the sack, just as Bill Lawry did in 1970, or he'd resign, as Kim Hughes did in 1984. But forget any fanciful Warne fairytale. Vice-captain Adam Gilchrist would take over or a younger captain for the next generation would be appointed.

Lillee forgets that when Ponting broke a thumb just a couple of months into his tenure and missed three Tests in India, Gilchrist led the team to two massive wins that clinched an historic series victory. It's just possible that momentous event may have impacted on Ponting's Test captaincy development.

According to Justin Langer, Ponting is "a mini Steve Waugh, he has got an outstanding cricket brain". But in the Ashes loss, over and over again we saw Ponting in a powwow with senior citizen Warne, we saw a lot of arm-flapping from Warne, even some head-shaking. Was this captaincy by committee, or more a case of "too many chiefs"? Michael Vaughan looked much more the commander-in-chief.

Ponting might be a Test veteran, starting at 21, but at 29 he is a young captain, in the job just 18 months. Luckily, Lillee seeking his scalp reminds us that the key factor in this Ashes turnabout was fast bowling: the brilliance of England's, the inadequacy of Australia's. The inquest into Australia's loss should go straight to fast bowling, Brett Lee in particular, and what is euphemistically known as "the red mist factor". Thoughtful probing will reveal leadership shortcomings.

The verdict on Ponting, coach John Buchanan and the selectors will be straightforward: complacency. From the earliest age Lee was always seriously fast, and in youth representative cricket in the mid-Nineties he showed the extra good sign of being annoyed by obstinate batsmen. Good selectors know potential when they see it - raw pace and aggression - and Lee had it. The trick is to turn it into a match-winning pressure package.

Who will forget two breath-taking passages of Test cricket on the final day at The Oval: Lee in full cry, Kevin Pietersen on the ropes but saved by the "lunch bell"; after lunch Lee, with the psychological edge and striving for the knockout, timed at 96.7mph; the Pieter-sen counterattack, 33 runs bludgeoned in three increasingly erratic Lee overs; the Test match suddenly turned.

That was a snapshot of Australia's series: lucky-dip fast bowling, another no-ball worth a wicket, another dropped catch, blitz-hitting from England, a puzzled captain, pressure released, game over.

Ponting was careless not to stop the game, to control his adrenalin-overdosed quick and, if the plan was to get Pietersen hooking, why did the captain have rookie Shaun Tait, the worst fielder in the team, in the "wicket position"? Lillee might ask: was that an oversight or a "committee" decision? Lee is nearly 29 and has been up for six years, yet we are still tapping our feet in Cricket Australia's waiting room wondering when our new, focused attack leader will arrive. Why? Australia chose two raw tearaways in Lillee in 1971 and Jeff Thomson in 1973. By 1975 they were disciplined champions.

Lee's immaturity reflects badly on the coach's bowling- development skills and on the selectors, whose blinkered vision never contemplated life without McGrath and Gill-espie so soon. They failed to offer him time in the middle in Tests preceding the Ashes. Did they really think the med-ium pace of Michael Kasprowicz was a better long- term bet than Lee's intimidating pace?

Ponting came home naïvely advocating his brittle team be left intact, indicating a mind confused by events undreamt of a few months ago. The coach needs a refresher course in old-fashioned fundamentals. Maybe it's time for a new sele-ction chairman, one keener to test the next generation.

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