Peter Roebuck: Ponting's fading team is product of poor planning

The tail wags the dog. State sides bulge not with hard heads but medical men and PR people. Players are pampered yet they don’t look fit and keep breaking down
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The Independent Online

England soared, Australia floundered. The gap between the sides has become a chasm. Andrew Strauss and his merry men go forward with supreme confidence in their ability not merely to retain the Ashes but to trounce these dumfounded opponents. Australia limp home to lick their wounds and await the verdict of selectors busy sharpening their knives lest their own heads be put on the block.

Let's give the victors their due. If England is the third best side in the world as the rankings insist then the top two must be playing well. For 10 days the Poms have resembled a well oiled machine. Their intensity has been unflagging, their fitness has been superb, their catching has been sharp, their batting has been powerful and their bowling has been incisive.

England's performance gave as much pleasure as Australia's did consternation. From Jonathon Trott's direct hit and James Anderson's sizzling swingers to Graeme Swann's sinuous spinners towards the end, the visitors have belonged in a different league. They made the Australians look ordinary. Efficiency was pitted against fantasy.

Nor has it been an overnight event. England success has been years in the making and months in the planning. The community has embraced South African rigour and antipodean aggression and added the patriotic fervour that has long been its hallmark. On and off the field, England have been superior. Administrators, selectors, coaches, backroom staff and captains have formed a unit with a single goal: the search for excellence.

England fields two palpably great cricketers in Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Swann. The spinner can take wickets with straight deliveries. Australia's only remaining great player is in decline. It's not easy captaining a struggling team. Nor is it easy being the only outstanding player in a side. Ricky Ponting is both.

The hosts will not get stronger by begrudging their opponents. Australia cannot rise until it accepts its position as the fourth-best team and falling. Moreover the fashionable talk of cycles is damaging; England decided to be strong, so became strong. Australia began making weak decisions and survived till the great players departed. Then came the day of reckoning.

At such times it is tempting to ride every hobby horse. However officials cannot escape their portion of blame. To allow two regulars to play T20 cricket a few days before the Indian series began was to invite trouble. To stage a silly and yet dangerous match on a Gabba green-top before the Ashes was to risk injury. To give the coach a new three-year contract before the summer began seemed complacent. To appoint Greg Chappell not merely as talent manager but also as selector was to fly in the face of recent performance.

For that matter NSW's decision last week to omit Mark Cameron from its Sheffield Shield match was short-sighted. A week before he had been Australia's best bowler. The tail is wagging the dog. States bulge not with hard heads but medical men and PR people. Players are pampered yet they don't look fit and keep breaking down. Ponting's team is the product of this system, not its saviour.

Regarding the team, it'd be madness to assume it's all over because Australia has fallen 1-0 behind. On the other hand it'd be folly to ignore the evidence. Injuries have complicated the selectors' task but the time for excuses has passed. Putting it bluntly, Xavier Doherty, Doug Bollinger and Marcus North cannot hold their places. Simon Katich's career may be over.

Four fresh faces are needed, including a couple of young blokes who can field. In that regard Steve Smith springs to mind. The fact that so many Australians are poor fieldsmen ought to ring alarm bells. Even the young batsmen are second rate. Something has gone seriously wrong here. It's no use blaming modern diseases like Facebookitis or Tweeting. England has both in abundance. IPL riches are another matter.

Australian cricket has become self-indulgent. Bold decisions are needed, and wise ones. England deserve hearty congratulation. But it's only a beginning. England has not fielded the strongest side in the world since 1956, the heyday of Frank Tyson, Jim Laker and Len Hutton.