Ricky Ponting, Captain of the Australian Cricket Team, is a man under fire from various parts of the media following his team’s failure to defend the Ashes in England this Summer. Yet James Sutherland, the Chief Executive of Cricket Australia, is adamant that to sack the captain as a result of the series loss would be completely unfair.
Ponting is also backed up by former captain and regular media pundit Ian Chappell, who remarked in his column for Cricinfo that Ponting had done well to keep the side afloat as it began its rebuilding phase.
So why, amid calls for change do these two prominent figures support the captain?
Part of the reason is that he hasn’t really done a bad job—critics may argue that being the first Australian captain to lose the Ashes twice is sufficient reason, but then few have been given a second chance. Having recovered the urn in such decisive fashion in 2006-'07, Ponting certainly earned that right.
It is difficult to argue that he was at any fault for the loss this past summer either: the Australians outplayed England for large portions of the series. One of the most critical comments of Ponting’s captaincy was in relation to his handling of the bowlers as Monty Panesar and James Anderson held out on the final day at Cardiff. In the end he had little option as he tried to fit in as many overs (and therefore opportunities to dismiss the final pair) as he could before the close and had doubts over Mitchell Johnson’s ability to finish off the game.
Still effective as captain?
Others had derided Ponting’s effectiveness as captain, but given the outflux of world-class players from the Australian side over the past three years (McGrath, Warne, Hayden, Langer, Martyn) you can only conclude that the skipper was hamstrung by the quality of players available to him, and further compromised by Brett Lee’s untimely injury and Johnson’s sudden loss of form and confidence.
Indeed, having lost a series at home to South Africa at the turn of the year, Ponting was inspiring enough to his young side in the return fixtures in early 2009 to overcome that defeat and come away with a great deal of pride restored. This was hardly the act of an ineffectual captain.
Some criticised Ponting’s (and the selectors’) continued faith in Johnson, who let his side down badly in the first half of the Ashes series, but it was that faith that was repaid with a stellar performance in the Fourth Test that levelled the series at 1-1 and Johnson continued to make life a misery for the likes of Ian Bell in the Final Test, showing that he had regained some of his own panache.
Ponting’s options for replacing Johnson were limited in any case, although Stuart Clark may feel hard done-by as a result, and once the selection committee had chosen the eleven for each game, Ponting did what he could with it.
Time for a new man?
Another line of criticism is that the Australian side needs an injection of new enthusiasm to lift it, and that replacing the captain would be the best way to achieve that.
This seems something of a specious argument—the current side is young and inexperienced, with newcomers like Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, and Phillip Hughes just starting to get their feet wet in International terms. Surely at this juncture continuity in captaincy is vital.
Ponting still leads by example, and is the best batsman on the team. We know that the captaincy doesn’t affect his performance with the bat detrimentally, and we don’t know about any potential alternatives.
Michael Clarke would be the most and probably only obvious successor at this stage, and there are just as many doubters of his ability to lead the side. Alex Brown wrote recently that Clarke needs to improve his hustle if he is going to be made a captain full-time, and Clarke himself still believes that Ponting is the best choice for the job.
The biggest concern about Clarke though is that, as vice-captain, if he had any wisdom or insight that he felt would have helped Australia retain the Ashes, he should have been passing it on to the Captain, and therefore he is effectively tarred with many of the same criticisms of failures that are levelled at Ponting.
The only choice
When it comes down to it, with both his record as a batsman, support from within the team, and lack of challengers to his position unquestioned, there seems little point in making a change to the captaincy simply for the sake of it, or on the basis of the lost Ashes series.
The crux of the past summer is not that Ponting let his players down with his captaincy—quite the opposite. The players that had been selected for him too often did not perform well enough, and it was they who let him down.
Ponting should stay.