Ponting is bloodied but not bowed

The Australian captain's pride is at risk but his position does not look under threat, writes Peter Roebuck at The Oval
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The Independent Online

For three days Australia have taken a fearful pasting. As Jonathan Trott and Graeme Swann carved the bowling around on the third afternoon, so the tourists began to look demoralised. After years of domination, they were given a taste of their own medicine.

As the mayhem continued, Ricky Ponting must have felt the same hopelessness that overcame opposing captains as his recently departed champions went to work. Throughout he was searching for a bowler and a few more fieldsmen. Australia's batting had been inept and the bowlers dropped short and wide, a doomed strategy. In the vernacular, captaincy had become hard yakka.

As the afternoon wore on and the drubbing became ever more intense, Ponting could be forgiven for feeling weary, appalled, and resigned. Along the way he took a blow on the face and another on the shin. Previously he had shot himself in the foot by choosing an attack unsuited to The Oval deck.

Now the Ashes were slipping from his grasp. He was about to become the first Australian captain since Billy Murdoch to lose the urn in England twice. Moreover, defeat will end Australia's long reign at the top of the world Test rankings. They'll drop to four in the list, one place above England. About the only surprise hereabouts was that Ponting did not burst into a refrain of "Always look on the bright side of life".

As he tried to foster spirit, his own and his team's, the touring captain could be forgiven for reflecting upon his tenure. After all, he is a proud man and not inclined to duck his responsibilities. A cricket community used to winning was on the brink of losing its third series out of four. Inevitably he is feeling the pinch. He knows that his leadership will come under scrutiny.

In another dispensation, his sacking would be a foregone conclusion. But the man from Mowbray, a blue-collar suburb outside Launceston, also knows that Australian cricket is much more likely to back him than sack him. And rightly so.

It is hard to overstate the respect assigned to the office of Australian captain in his own country. The occupant leads not just the senior team but an entire cricket community. Captains are not appointed or ejected lightly. Nor are they blamed for every setback. After all Ponting survived losing the Ashes in 2005. Instead a group of past players was asked to consider its implications and make recommendations. They advocated appointing a bowling coach and improving the team's preparation, suggestions immediately put in place.

Ponting can deepnd on the support of his Board and selectors. Of course lessons will be learnt and mistakes criticised. Australia have kept picking the right team for the last match not the next one. But that is primarily the responsibility of selectors also blamed for the imbalance in the original squad. Division of labour is taken seriously down under.

Clearly, too, Australia need to put their bowling resources to better use. No longer can they simply seek the best quartet and play them in all conditions. Ponting will be invited to put his points but there will no inquisition. Australia understands that a captain is not a puppeteer.

In any case the next captain is not regarded as ready to take over. Michael Clarke has occasionally taken charge of a 20-over side containing lots of tyros. Leading a Test team including players older than himself is an altogether stiffer task.

Cricket Australia (CA) will not be in any rush to promote him. Among Ponting's contemporaries, Simon Katich is the only plausible contender. As captain of New South Wales he commands respect but his progress was hindered by injuries and illnesses and at 34 it is too late for him.

Accordingly Ponting will not be under pressure to resign. Nor is he likely to step aside. He confirmed his enduring batting skills in Cardiff and Headingley. Already he is the highest run scorer his country has produced and his appetite appears unsated.

And it is rare for an Australian captain to be allowed to keep playing once he has stood down. Other countries may field several former captains in their line-ups but that is not the antipodean way. Ponting knows that resignation and retirement are closely intertwined.

In any case Ponting is not to blame for the apparently impending defeat. And his day did at least end better than it began, with his openers stroking the ball around The Oval with aplomb. And so Australia's captain and best batsman went to bed with a tiny glimmer of hope in his heart. Things were bad but they could have been a lot worse.