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The first rule of leadership: ITS ALWAYS YOUR FAULT

Ricky Ponting has to lift his leadership and he has to start with letting go over the substitutes drama. I recommend that he watch “A Bug’s Life” (Disney, 1998). Any four year old who has watched “A Bugs Life” animation knows the first rule of leadership: It’s always your fault. Here’s a hint Ricky: Listen very carefully to Hopper.

It’s quite simple: If you take a short single and the fielder hits the stumps, you are going to be out. Blame your partner for the bad call if you must. Blame yourself – you said “yes”. Look no further. Australia has suffered at least three costly run outs in this series but I tell you, if the English had hit the stumps every time, that number would be at least 15. That’s no exaggeration – the Australian running has been a good barometer of the state of mind of the team.

Ricky needs to look for the answers within the team. They can’t control how good the reverse swing is, the umpires decisions or England taking advantage of the substitutes rule but they can stop themselves being run out. They can start taking their catches and they can stop bowling criminal numbers of no balls.

And they can stop persisting for too long with out of form players.

Less Zen. More Drills.

Australian coach John Buchanan is often described in terms such as someone who can “think outside the square”. He is an incisive and decisive thinker, a supreme analyst and a master of psychology, philosophy and mind games. He has introduced concepts to the Australian team such as arriving at the ground first and “claiming ownership of the ground”. Well, that’s all well and good but is he paying the basics enough respect?

I was troubled in about March, when in New Zealand, Buck told the media that the Australian team simply did not have the time for as many fielding drills as in the past. With the amount of cricket and travelling, there simply was not enough time. I nearly gagged on my Weeties as I read that over breakfast. This comment was made at a time when there seemed to be a few short comings in the Australian fielding.

The place where a side’s fielding is really tested is behind the stumps. The wicket keeper and the slips. The fact is that some are better slippers than others. I don’t think it is possible to have a better trio than Healy, Taylor and Junior Waugh. Perhaps there have been some who were as good but I don’t think better. All three were the very top of the tree. Since the gradual departure of those gentlemen, the standard has certainly fallen. My thinking is that if there is less natural ability in a certain area, then more work needs to be done.

Healy himself recently made the point that Australia has been able to “wear” dropped chances simply because they often are not costly. This is because of the calibre of the bowling arsenal. If Gillie drops one, not to worry, Pigeon will probably knock over the castle next ball. (Let’s hope it’s not a no ball.) As old legs weary and more particularly, against top quality opposition, dropped catches are going to count, and Australia paid dearly in the 3rd Test.

I’m not the biggest Bob Simpson fan in the world but right about now I have fond memories of images of Simmo with his baseball glove on and 20-30 old balls gathered around him. And a ring of Aussie players waiting for their name to be called and to catch/fetch and return. Allan Border, in the ABC production “Cricket in the 80’s – Rookies, Rebels and Renaissance” is very clear that when Australian cricket was at its lowest in 1986, Simmo played a big part in turning it around with attention to fielding and fitness. Border said that the team was not even getting the basics right. Getting the basics right provided a good platform to build on.

I wonder if just as getting the basics right contributed to the rise of Australia’s star, whether neglect of the basics will contribute to the fall of champions.

Close but no cigar

There is no game like cricket. Only cricket can produce a thrilling finish for a game that is not even completed – that is what a draw is after all. This series that continues to thrill and exceed all expectations has added to the list of great draws. Remember Border and Whit holding out Hadlee in 85-86? Border and Alderman keeping Marshall and Garner at bay in 84-85? And who could forget Slasher MacKay and Lindsay Kline in 1960-61? This was just as good in a whole day of drama.

Australia and England will both take some momentum and hope to Leeds. England, of course were the undeniable moral victors – without the loss of almost all of day three to rain, England most certainly would have won. And given the circumstances, Australia will feel as if they have won, having salvaged the situation for the match and the series. And even though they had assistance from weather, they did have to do some work themselves.

And now some random comments and observations:

1. My father-in-law called me at 2:10 am to see if I was watching. What a father-in-law. By the way, the answer was no.

2. The Aussie batsmen have real worries. They have two in form and it must be a worry that one of them is the number 8. Aside from Ponting’s magnificent, match saving innings and Warne’s 90, there were no other innings on the right side of 40. The reason can only be the quality of the attack. The Aussies have not had to cope with such relentless pressure for a long, long time and they seem not to be able to dig deep enough to build a big innings. The reverse swing is killing them. Langer’s 82 in the 2nd Test was what is needed. I think at least one batsman will go. Probably Katich, assuming that Clarke recovers. The left handers are really struggling, particularly against Flintoff and another right hander might be the go.

3. Flintoff’s working over of Hayden was one of the great pieces of bowling. Having bowled pearler after jaffa outside off stump, he speared one into leg stump. Perfect. This ball immediately followed the graph on TV that plotted each ball from Flintoff to Hayden – every single one was outside off stump. What a set up.

4. Dizzie is gone. It must be obvious.

5. The England top three all have some runs on the board now. And Australia have themselves to blame – key innings for all of those guys could have been avoided by holding their chances.

6. Harmison’s figures for the past two matches are 4-224 (ave 56.00). He didn’t take a wicket in either first innings. I’m not making much of that except to say that it didn’t matter. There were other guys to do the job, most notably Jones and Flintoff.

7. Pietersen could not catch a cold in Antarctica. For that matter, the catching by both sides for the whole Test was pretty poor. Some good catches were taken, no doubt but my goodness some went down.

8. While Australia was never in danger of winning, 9/371 was a seriously good effort for a 4th innings. With tons of luck.

9. McGrath may not have realised his ambition to hit the winning runs in a Test match but this may be the closest he gets to being a hero with the bat. England must have been cursing an easy single to McGrath from the 4th last ball.

10. Harmison bowled a very average last over. Perhaps the Welshman should have had the cherry.

I just spent six months in a leaky boat

Perhaps the selectors need to pay more attention to the words of the great Kiwi band Split Enz. Perhaps Kiwis know more about cricket than Australians give them credit for. The cracks that have been emerging over the past twelve months or so – significant comebacks were necessary against Sri Lanka, India and New Zealand. Now, those cracks are starting to open up under significant pressure. I find it hard to see Australia recovering from this dire position without some new material.

On Day Two of the 3rd Test, England put Australia to the sword. And once again the batsmen who failed and once again, and even more tellingly than Edgbaston, it was Ashley Giles doing significant damage. Australia recovered reasonably well with the ball as England made 444. Just like Edgbaston, many of the pundits were wondering if that was enough – Australia might well make 600 on such a pitch. True, Australia at its best, against a weak opposition, MIGHT make 600 on this pitch but 444 runs is a lot of runs on any pitch.

Most people, myself included would have been surprised at Australia’s feeble reply.

The Australian batsmen are under immense pressure. I’m predicting that this series will see the end of the career of at least one. It’s hard to see all of them being selected for the next Test. Perhaps two of them should go, but which two? It’s hard to pick. Langer is the only one who has looked good this series. An interesting trend is that all of the batsmen are making starts but none of them are going on with it. In the past two tests, the top seven have had a total of 21 innings. Fifteen of the innings (71%) have progressed past 15. Of those, just two (13%) have progressed past fifty. And we all know how many have progressed past 100. And that has been what is costing Australia, and England for that matter in this series.

What would England’s innings been without Vaughan’s 166? Average. And the game would be in the balance. Sides need batsmen to do what Vaughan did and make big hundreds. The performance of the England captain who stood up and lead from the front, under great pressure cannot be underestimated. It may well be the defining point in the series.

The Australian selectors need to make some changes immediately. One of the problems is that players are struggling but it’s hard to know who to replace them with. There is just one other specialist batsman on tour (Hodge) but how much cricket has he played in the last six months? Sure, he was in good form in Australia but that was a long, long time ago. The dearth of first class cricket on tour creates a real problem in that respect. And, as opposed to an Australian summer, there are not 50 batsmen going round in the Pura Milk Cup to choose from.

The selectors can’t persist with Gillespie – 3 wickets at 92.3 and conceding 4.4 rpo. Their faith and in him has been admirable but if I were playing in that team, I would be feeling more than a little discouraged that the team was turning out just three useful bowlers. And exploring the “leaky boat” theory, Gillespie has not been impressive since November 2004 where he took two bags of four and a five in the final two Tests against India. There has not been a “4 for” since then – 11 matches including this one. He took 7 wickets at 45.71 in the three Test series against New Zealand in NZ. Gillespie’s troubles did not begin on this tour! Who should replace him? The conservative choice would be Kasper and it would be rough to leave him out. But Kasper has hardly impressed on tour either. I think the time has come to bite the bullet and introduce Tait.

If I were a selector, I would be thinking Tait for Gillespie and Hodge for Hayden (Katich to open). I would also be considering Michael Hussey for the fifth Test if things don’t improve. But of course, by then, it may be too late. I know Hussey is not in the Test squad but he was the form player from the one day series and he is playing county cricket, averaging 64.58 this season. Why not add him to the squad and select him? Who should he replace? It probably doesn’t matter out of Clarke, Martyn and Katich. Perhaps I’m being too harsh.

Australia is seven down still 34 short of avoiding the follow on. But the follow on is a moot point. Australia’s only chance is to bat again and make some serious runs and set England a target. And I very much doubt that they will be given that chance. No way. The only thing that will save Australia now is a miracle and/or rain. Then they will have to prove that they are the best team in the world just to save the Ashes, let alone win the series.