Peter Roebuck: Ponting may survive but coach and selectors should pay price

The Australian angle
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The Independent Online

England danced a jig and the Australians slumped. So often it has been the other way around. Now it is the Aussies' turn to reflect. Defeat can be instructive. Strong sides expose faultlines in their opponents and ought to be thanked for their contribution. The time to start the fightback is while the opponent is popping corks.

Australia's predicament is alarming. No cricket community searching for leaders, bereft of opening batsmen, lacking spinners, burdened with injured fast bowlers or even an internal candidate for the ICC presidency, can be complacent about its prospects.

The fall has been quick but was a long time building It's not the losses but their size that indicate the parlous state of the game. Two innings defeats at home are hard to swallow. That both matches were effectively lost in the first hour was frustrating and showed that England are a strong front runner and that Australia's batting lacks technique and tenacity.

Now comes the reckoning. Ricky Ponting has his failings and his record is blotted by the loss of three Ashes series. However, he has two World Cups and umpteen victories to his name. His poor form is a concern but that does not mean it's over for him. Babies and bathwater spring to mind.

Plainly though, the combination of captaining a struggling side and also batting at first wicket down has taken a toll. He could be retained a while longer as captain and instructed to bat at third wicket down instead. But he cannot continue to rule the roost. Letting him play with a broken finger is unwise. Nor is it sensible to regard his judgements as sacrosanct. He has a higher opinion of Ben Hilfenhaus and a lower view of Jason Krejza than their performances justify.

For decades Cricket Australia (CA) set the benchmark for sporting administration. Now it seems overstaffed and heavy handed. The decision taken a few months ago to give coach Tim Neilson a three-year extension to his contract seemed ill-advised. On the day of his removal those responsible ought to go with him.

Neilson has been outmanoeuvred by his counterpart and the same can be said about his batting and bowling coaches. England's strategies and skills were superior in every area. Likewise, the appointment of a vice-captain from a different generation was risky. Michael Clarke has struggled to make the transition from pup to prince, and from good to great batsman. When the next captain is appointed the deputy position ought to be left open. England can count themselves lucky that Alastair Cook is steady and loyal.

By no means can the selectors escape censure. After remaining inert for 18 months they rushed the gate at the start of this campaign. Fundamentals have been forgotten. They could start by naming a proper opening pair. Anyone applying for the role ought to prove themselves in the Shield. It is a specialist skill. Greener tracks and better bowling have underlined that point.

CA also needs to instruct Australian states to prepare proper pitches. "Result" tracks have become commonplace. Accordingly batsmen are either flat-track bullies or nervous nellies. Spinners are not getting a go. Spin cannot be taught in a net. But Australian cricket is also in trouble because the production line, once its pride and joy, is not working. Grade and Shield cricket have been undermined and are no longer putting youngsters through their paces.

Australian Rules Football and Facebook have also taken a toll. Almost alone amongst talented young Victorian sportsmen, Alex Keath put cricket before footy. It is absurd that teenagers are forced to choose between the disciplines but the Australian Football League (AFL) knows its strength and can force the issue. Keath's reward was to serve as spare fieldsman at the MCG. That shows the extent of CA's concern.

Now AFL is expanding in Sydney, hitherto the most reliable source of cricketing talent. No wonder CA is worried; no wonder it is encouraging the spread of Twenty20 franchises. Meanwhile, children report that it's becoming harder to get a hit as all their pals are on Facebook.

Although rivals enjoy beating them, the last thing cricket needs is a weak Australia.