'Sorry Ricky, but what are you doing?' Warne twists the knife

Former spinner criticises Ponting's tactics as Australia slip below England in rankings with Ashes series looming
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The Independent Online

A third consecutive Test defeat, one more step down the international rankings and Shane Warne publicly questioning the tactics of captain Ricky Ponting – after another chastening day for Australia, England's cricket fans can be forgiven for wishing the Ashes series was starting right now rather than towards the end of next month.

But while six weeks is long enough for Australia to rethink, regroup and reacquaint themselves with home conditions, a 2-0 series defeat in India adds strength to the theory that Ponting leads a team on the slide as opposed to one in transition.

Dangerous talk? Maybe, but if England do not travel Down Under this winter expecting, rather than hoping, to retain the prize they fought so hard to secure 14 months ago, their glasses will be forever half-empty.

Having lost narrowly to Pakistan at Headingley in July, Australia were pipped in a one-wicket thriller in Mohali earlier this month. But at Bangalore, despite the advantage of batting first and then putting a total just shy of 500 on the board, they went down by seven wickets yesterday without seriously threatening to discomfort an injury-hit Indian outfit that cruised to a target of 207.

Not since the late 1980s, when West Indies could still field an attack made up of four fabulous fast bowlers, have Australia been beaten in three consecutive Tests. And, having led the Test rankings for so long that no one bothered looking at them for several years, Ponting's team are down to fifth place – one spot below England. No wonder we can hear the knives being sharpened, and there are likely to be some wounding comments over the next few days.

Warne did not wait for the result to be confirmed yesterday before having a dart, via Twitter, at his former captain and long-time team-mate.

"How the hell can [Nathan] Hauritz bowl to this field?" tweeted Warne after Australia's struggling slow bowler had been hit for 22 in his first two overs. "Feeling for Hauritz, terrible! What are these tactics? Sorry Ricky, but what are you doing?"

There was a time, of course, when Ponting did not have to think too hard about his tactics. If Glenn McGrath was unable to do the damage with that so simple yet wonderfully consistent brand of fast bowling then the captain could always throw the ball to leg-spinner-cum-magician Warne, and wait for panic to set in among opposition batsmen.

It is a tribute to Australia's tenacity that they maintained an illusion of greatness after McGrath, Warne and the often underrated but brilliantly effective opener Justin Langer retired, all together, following the Ashes whitewash of 2006-07. And even when wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden left the scene, they still won many more than they lost.

But, a year or so ago, England captain Andrew Strauss was brave enough to say publicly what many thought: Australia had lost their aura as well as their crown.

That does not mean that this winter's battle is going to be a breeze for Strauss's boys. England are fourth and Australia fifth in the Test rankings for the simple reason that both sides are perfectly capable of blowing hot and cold. And there is no doubt that home advantage will be just what it should be – an advantage.

But while the last few months have indicated that Strauss and Co are on the way back up as a force in Test cricket, results – and performances – over the same period suggest Australia have real problems in all areas.

"There are some issues we need to deal with, and we have to get over them quickly," said Ponting. "We've managed to match it with the No 1 team for nine of the 10 days in this series, but we haven't been good enough when it has mattered. We've got to move on pretty quickly now. Our next Test match is at the Gabba [Brisbane on 25 November], the start of the Ashes series. We have to make sure that we play five long, tough days of Test cricket."

It was not so long ago Australia floated the idea that Tests should be limited to four days – because that was usually more than enough time for them to see off the opposition.

Now, Australia must have real worries about their batting where opener Simon Katich flatters to deceive, Michael Clarke is out of touch, Mike Hussey remains Mr Cricket but no longer Mr Consistency, Marcus North fails too often for comfort and even Ponting is asking questions of himself after twice failing to capitalise in Bangalore after passing 50.

As for the fast bowlers, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus did well enough in India without being devastating. And England know enough about them from the last Ashes series to be respectful but not fearful. The biggest concern though, must be spinner Hauritz, whose six wickets in India came at an average of 65.

Hardly the stuff of English nightmares, is it?

England overtake Australia ahead of Ashes

1988 and all that... The previous time Australia lost three consecutive Tests was in 1988, against the West Indies in Melbourne. Under Viv Richards, the Windies won in Brisbane and Perth, before securing the series with a 285-run victory. Australia then proceeded to lose just one of their next 21 matches.

ICC Test rankings/Rating

India 130

South Africa 119

Sri Lanka 115

England 112

Australia 110

Pakistan 83

Australia trail England for the first time since the table was introduced in 2003.