On the first day of the second Test between Australia and Pakistan, we saw a rare thing. A genuine green top is something that the world has been deprived of in recent times. To Sydneysiders, this would not have seemed a strange thing. I live in the hot, dry west of Sydney and until Christmas Eve, my lawn was all but dead. Since then there has been significant rain, mild temperatures and oppressive humidity. My lawn has been transformed in just over a week.
What has my lawn got to do with the second Test you ask? Most would know but I’ll spell it out for the youngsters. My lawn and cricket pitches are both but grass and in this case, both are in Sydney. One look at the pitch on Sunday confirmed that.
Ponting has been criticised for not putting Pakistan in. It may have been a no-brainer to bowl on that pitch but I’m not going to give Ricky a dressing-down (this time). While I’m not going to defend him, I will use the event to explore the psyche of the Australian skipper and his team.
Ponting offered England fist use of the pitch at Edgbaston in 2005. Australia was thumped and Ponting was lambasted in the press for letting England bat first. I would not mind betting that Ponting resolved there and then never to put the opposition in again. I’d like to know, has Ponting put the opposition in since then? Ponting may put on a brave face and appear to have a thick skin, but I believe that under surface lurks insecurity. And scathing attacks from the press and former players hurt.
Adding to the experience of the Edgbaston 2005 disaster, the fact is that in almost all cases, it is better to bat first. And also, the corollary of batting first is bowling last, and that is also usually an advantage. Just last week, I was discussing this with a colleague at work and we agreed that it was almost non-discretional to bat first.
This is supported by Australia’s recent performance. When was the last time that Australia fielded first and won a Test? Not this summer. Not during the Ashes. And not last summer. (BTW, I think I know the answer). Australia now needs the advantage of batting first and Ponting knows it. I think that the advantage extends to more than technical – it has become mental.
I wonder if Ponting and his band of merry men believe that they can win chasing. The pitch was bowler friendly on Sunday but it was not unplayable. The Pakistani bowlers bowled extremely well but the Australian batsmen contributed. There were some jaffas (the Watson and Clarke dismissals spring to mind) but there was an array of rash shots and nervous prods on display.
On day 2, all waited to see if Australia could route the Pakistanis. They could not. The Pakistan batsmen were more patient and careful. And the Australian bowlers did not use the conditions well. I don’t really think there was that much difference in the pitch and conditions. In today’s bowling discussions, we constantly hear irritating terms such as “the right areas” and “just back of a length”. I can tell you that those two terms were mutually exclusive on this pitch. The Aussies bowled way too short.
The sad thing is that they got some wickets late in the day with a series of rash hooks and pulls. Perhaps they thought the short tactics finally worked. The truth is that the horse had well and truly bolted and Pakistan were going for quick runs to extend their huge lead.
Ponting is single-minded, determined, persistent and dogged. These can all be good qualities. However, in Ponting’s case, I believe they lead to inflexibility. This inflexibility probably lead him to ignore the local conditions and bat first on Sunday. Looking back again at Edgbaston 2005, one of the central issues was that McGrath was injured 60 minutes before the start of play. It seemed obvious that Ponting had already decided to bowl. Many though he should have reassessed when McGrath was injured. I am trying to teach my children to constantly reassess changing circumstances.
Someone on the ABC suggested that Ponting should not even be playing. His one and only ball in the first innings demonstrated a batsman who cannot use is left arm. While it is brave and dogged, and perhaps admirable, it is not in the best interests of the team if you can’t do your job as the premiere batsman. I think that Ponting’s inflexible attitude also leads to inflexibility in tactics in the way of field placing and use of bowlers. He seems slow to try new things and to find the best bowler for the given conditions.
Most of Australia’s recent victories came from posting a big score and wearing down the opposition. It is true that the Australian attack is workman-like to some extent. However, bowlers like Johnson, Siddle and Bollinger should have been more dangerous on the Sydney pitch. They bowled the right length for Melbourne, not a Sydney green top. Surely Ponting should have been begging them to pitch it up.
It remains to be seen if Pakistan can now close out the match. They deserve to. I would be surprised if Australia don’t make a better showing in the second innings but it will be a long haul indeed.