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Ponting over troubled waters
14 Nov 2008
Peter Roebuck

AUSTRALIA’S defeat in India paves the way for other countries to mount a challenge.

Ricky Ponting’s players fought hard, but did not have the bowling resources required to trouble a strong batting order appreciating placid pitches. The imminent return of Andrew Symonds will put a bit of spark into the fielding and add aggression to the batting, but it will not add much penetration with the ball.

Ponting is lucky that his next opponents are an already vulnerable Kiwi outfit denied the services of Jacob Oram, its hard hitting allrounder, and also lacking several fine players who have signed for the rebel ICL. By the time Graeme Smith and company arrive, the Australians ought to have settled down.

Although defeat itself is not surprising in a country where even the strongest Australian sides have often come a cropper, the manner of the loss in the final match did raise eyebrows.

Ponting’s failure to go for the knockout punch when India were on the ropes on the fourth afternoon provoked widespread astonishment and dismay among Australia supporters.

To set the scene, a nervous home side — desperate to secure the draw needed to retain their 1-0 lead and thereby claim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy — lost three important wickets in the last few minutes before tea.

Indeed the hosts were in such disarray that Sachin Tendulkar, the game’s highest scorer, ran himself out in the last over before the break.

At the interval India led by 252 runs with their tail exposed and the pitch holding together much better than expected. In other words, the hosts were in a spot of bother.

For the first time in the series, Brett Lee and Shane Watson had swung the old ball and Jason Krejza had taken two wickets in two balls, the first with the best ball of the campaign, a perfectly pitched and flighted off-break that beat VVS Laxman’s defensive push.

Australia could chase anything up to 300. Plain as day, the game was afoot.

Everyone expected the visiting captain to start the evening session with his most dangerous bowlers. If India batted another hour, the target was likely to become beyond reach, not least because Mahendra Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh, the batsmen in occupation, were quick scorers. Instead, the Australians blinked.

After a single over of Mitchell Johnson, the ball was thrown to part-timers like Cameron White, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke. Nor was it an aberration corrected straight away.

India were able to add 100 runs in 100 minutes before Watson was brought back, whereupon the last four wickets fell in a heap. By then the visitors needed 382 to square the series, a task that proved beyond them.

At the time it seemed beyond comprehension. Certainly, past captains like Allan Border felt baffled and betrayed. Afterwards, Ponting explained that he had been worried about the over rate and had discovered that his team had fallen nine behind the required rate.

He added that he was not so much concerned about missing the next match, the sanction a captain faces for a second offence, as for the spirit of the game. Ever since the controversies that surrounded the Sydney Test with India last year, the Australians have been anxious to show themselves in a better light.

As far as Ponting was concerned, he was duty-bound to take over rates into account. And so he allowed the moment to pass. He pointed out, too, that his pacemen deserved a rest and he did retain his main spinner.

By general consent, the explanation was almost as bizarre as the original tactic. Australia had been bowling their overs slowly all series, a fact that had upset travelling supporters. Whenever they fielded, the extra 30 minutes was required and even then a few overs generally went to waste. But the problem went unchecked until the last possible moment and at the worst possible time. Australia had a match to win and a trophy to retain.

It is hard to imagine any previous Australian captain blinking at such a moment. Since the events occurred straight after a break, they must have been discussed in the rooms. Hereabouts Ponting thought his side were only five or six overs behind, but discovered, as the players took to the field, that the position was significantly worse. Afterwards he took full responsibility for the decision.

Nor were these tactics the only strange events that occurred during the Nagpur Test. Three of the top Australians were run out, the keeper threw a glove at the ball and cost his side a five-run penalty, and four overthrows were given away when a fielder was tying his laces.

It pointed towards a touring party that had lost the plot. Now Ponting and his senior players face the task of putting Humpty Dumpty back together.

Symonds’s recall and Mathew Hayden’s powerful innings in Nagpur suggest that the team may have touched bottom.

•International writer Peter Roebuck, who is based in the KZN midlands, is currently in India for the Test series against Australia.

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