The Nick Townsend Column: Burden of captaincy: the world passes from Ricky's shoulders to Freddie's
Sunday 26 November 2006
Steve Bucknor's trigger finger rose - almost apologetically, you suspected - and Ricky Ponting's head slumped forward. The Australian captain was probably only vaguely aware of his pumped-up counterpart Andrew Flintoff, resembling Popeye after hurling the contents of a can of spinach down his throat, in a state of delirious pleasure.
On his way back to the stands, Ponting swished his bat irritatedly at an unseen demon. It was about the only occasion in the first three days of the First Test when the pair emotionally traded places - one man four short of his double century briefly exercised by failure; the other scrutinising an Australia scoreboard reading over 400 and climbing, and groping at the merest hint of a reversal of fortunes.
In reality, though, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the England captain and a highly personal one for his Australia counterpart, whose majestic performance can have been lost only on the most myopic of England supporters and viewers. Despite Ponting's protestations, it was reparation to a nation for the almost unpardonable sin of allowing that precious urn to go walkabout.
In this compelling duel within a game, both Ponting and Flintoff have hammered out inspiration from their respective forges. One redefines the word "Aussie" as an epithet for obduracy; the other is one to whom the hosts would readily award a baggy green cap.
The problem is, as Phil Tufnell put it having surveyed the visitors' bowling figures after the first Australia innings had been closed at 602: "Freddie's mates haven't turned up for the party."
It is not that England arrived without their bottle; just that they appeared underprepared and overwhelmed despite Flintoff's declaration to the contrary. Glenn McGrath, one of Australia's Old Contemptibles, taunted England by suggesting: "If you lose to a bunch of old people it looks worse." Yet within those words there are grounds for some long-term optimism. Age may yet weary the hosts, while the rustiness of under-employed English limbs may be oiled. That is if they can resist this initial mental bludgeoning by Ponting's men, a task with which Flintoff is now charged.
At least Atlas only had to support the heavens. Flintoff (left), already established as part of England's mythology and coming to terms with the responsibility of his first Ashes Test as captain, must endeavour to lever England from a kind of hell. Strike bowler, No 6 batsman, specialist slip fielder; he has had the burden of expectations of England followers both in Australia and back home on his shoulders. He may be guilty of doubtful decision-making at times, but has never faltered as a role model of what England expects, this pull-your-weight machine.
The son of Lancashire has not only to justify himself as an all-rounder but as a captain before those hanging judges of Sky TV, the ex-England captains who spare no one. Not coach. Not players. Within seconds of the coverage beginning, Ian Botham and Nasser Hussain were damning Duncan Fletcher's preference for Ashley Giles ahead of Monty Panesar. Hussain's interpretation of Panesar's rejection was brutally blunt. He recited his achievements this summer, then added: "They're saying, 'Whatever you do, you're not good enough'."
Within minutes of the start, Michael Atherton and Hussain were questioning Flintoff's field placing, stressing the requirement for a second gully for Matthew Hoggard's bowling as Australia's openers cut loose. And so the expert advice continued. When Flintoff requested that umpire Billy Bowden should inspect what he suspected was a mis-shapen ball, there was a degree of contempt from the commentators. "Bowl better," sniffed Hussain. "Amen to that," Atherton endorsed him.
The duo offer an intelligent insight into the psyche of an England captain, and their contribution is invaluable to those at home whose sleep patterns were as disturbed as Stephen Harmison's mind. Yet it places today's incumbent of the toughest role in cricket under the most severe scrutiny. When Ponting observed: "I can see it will be a lot of hard work for Andrew, being the all-rounder and having to carry the captaincy around on his shoulders", he was not being mischievous; just asking whether such an all-singing, all-dancing captain is also best placed to make the most informed answers to daunting questions. Particularly when they concern his own deployment.
Most crucially, did Flintoff react swiftly enough to bring himself into the attack on that first day? Michael Vaughan, who is unlikely to be fit until the one-day matches, almost certainly would have introduced him more quickly than the 50 minutes it required to persuade Flintoff that his spirited assault was needed. So too Andrew Strauss, had he won the vote. Yet Flintoff, whounderwent ankle surgery in July, knows his own body and what it will withstand.
There have been minor triumphs for Flintoff, specifically when he speared one delivery at Ponting which reared and had the little Tasmanian almost leaping for his life, as well as for his wicket - which he maintained, despite England appeals. The moment captured the instincts of two magnificent competitors.
First blood to the Australian. But after last year, Ponting will be the first to recognise that the battle of attrition has only just commenced.
Game wooed by dubious virtue of the video age
During the First Test at the Gabba, and at Twickenham yesterday, England's cricketers and rugby players, officials and followers happily embraced the concept of the video verdict.
Football still abstains from taking such a revolutionary step, though the referees' chief, Keith Hackett, plans to demonstrate the "benefits" of video technology to Fifa's rule-making board in January. That body would be wise to remain circumspect about embarking on an innovation that would alter the whole nature of the professional game.
To do so would open a can of concerns. For a start, it is not necessarily the diviner of truth its advocates maintain. Was there contact by Blackburn's Tugay on Tottenham's Hossam Ghaly, resulting in a penalty and dismissal by referee Phil Dowd at Ewood Park last Sunday? Was the official correct not to penalise Spurs' Mido for apparently handling the ball in his own area?
One Premiership manager, Manchester City's Stuart Pearce, who like many of us was not able to offer a definitive verdict on those incidents, countered the call for video replays. "I am quite happy to get on with it," he said. "Let the referee make his decision and let that decision be final."
Other managers love to commend to us the virtues of video replays, claiming "it would help referees". What would actually assist them, as former official David Elleray has observed, is some respect.
Watford's manager, Aidy Boothroyd, was all for officials being put in the stocks and having tomatoes pelted at them after referee Chris Foy's performance at Fratton Park last Saturday, though his main complaint regarding Jay DeMerit's foul on Nwankwo Kanu, which led to a last-minute, match-winning penalty against his side, was almost certainly unfounded.
No apology appears to have been forthcoming. If there is a place for video, it is for managers to look at and, indeed, listen to themselves.
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