As the WACA Test starts today, Ricky Ponting’s captaincy career is at its crossroads. Should England withhold the Ashes from him in Perth, he will become the only Australian captain to fail at this ancient contest for a third time. Should he engineer an unlikely comeback, his status could reach the legendary.
At present though, the latter option looks unlikely.
His team’s fortune has been steadily in decline, matched by his own batting. Were the Ashes being lost despite Ponting heroics, we would make allowance for the quality of his squad. That his twin failures at Adelaide were the key dismissals in that defeat is far more cause for concern.
Ponting has stated a desire to play on for another two years, to embark on another trip to England and make amends. It will require a Tendulkar-like late-innings revival for that to remain a possibility. He will last out this series, and perhaps even the World Cup. But if form and results don’t pick up, even this stodgy selection panel will have to signal the end of the road.
The question is, what would happen from there? Part of the reason there has been little pressure on Ponting – compared, for instance, to the unholy flame-grilling of Steve Waugh during the corresponding tour of 2002-03 – is that there is no successor beating down the door.
Michael Clarke has been the anointed one since soon after his debut, with no apparent qualification aside from being the youngster in a team of veterans. Yet Clarke leaves many people unconvinced.
Not that he’s not visible. Waiting for a bus on Eddy Street outside Sydney’s Central Station a few weeks ago, Michael Clarke was all around me. Apparently he’s taken over the side of every bus shelter in the metropolitan area.
There he was, on the cover of Sport & Style, calling back the 80s in a sports coat and t-shirt. There he was, in a whole series of Bonds ads, with a stick insect model draped over him, or showing off his tatts and his guns.
In a lot of ways it seemed to expose the root of public ambivalence towards Clarke. It may be old-fashioned and unenlightened, but to a lot of Australians a bloke appearing in fashion shoots could be seen to have tickets on himself. The Aston Martins and Lara Bingles of this world don’t help either.
Whether it’s fair or not, there is a perception that this aspect of Clarke’s life affects his life on the field. Cricket is the ultimate team game, and suggestions of self-interest are not received warmly. It is also a game of grit and tenacity, and the question is whether he has enough of either.
Clarke has been 13 innings without a hundred now, the longest stretch of his career aside from the lead-up to his being dropped in 2005. He has made some useful scores in that time, but not quite stamped his authority on games. To be a leader, a batsman must play like one.
Adelaide was the perfect microcosm of the Clarke career.
Here was an opportunity for him to tough out a game, bat a long innings, show leadership, save his team from defeat. Instead he played an eye-catching cameo before falling to a soft dismissal in the final over of the day. His team crumbled quickly.
Clarke is a good enough player to turn all this around, but whether he will is another question. Should his form continue to suffer along with Ponting’s, Australia will find itself in a tenuous position regarding leadership.
Mike Hussey is resurgent, but too advanced in years to be anything but a stop-gap. Simon Katich’s career sadly came to an end with that brave one-legged effort in Adelaide. Shane Watson is hardly the brains of the operation.
The bowlers rotate like rotisserie chooks. Steve Smith and Phil Hughes are as green as the WACA pitch.
S o why not get Cameron White into the team? Blooding him now would provide a reassuring option if and when Ponting finally gives the game away.
In terms of leadership, White is unequalled.
Why he’s not already the national Twenty20 and one-day captain beggars belief. He assumed the captaincy of Victoria at just 20 years of age, and has performed with distinction for seven years, widely praised as an imaginative, cheerful, determined skipper who leads from the front.
In that seven years his sides have reached five Shield finals, winning three; the last four consecutive domestic one-day finals; and all five domestic Twenty20 finals, winning four. It’s an astonishing record.
Yet every time his name comes up, someone declares that White’s batting isn’t up to Test standard. It’s like a John Howard election strategy: repeat the same thing over and over and people start to believe it.
That other mob will make interest rates go up. White doesn’t have the technique. Everyone accepts that it’s true. Then a global financial crisis hits and suddenly your online savings account is paying two percent.
White’s batting is about as destructive as the GFC when he turns it on, which is apparently what makes him unsuitable. Critics point to his average of 41.9 as being below par. It’s actually highly impressive for a guy who started his career purely as a leg spinner at the age of 17, batting at No. 9, and averaging less than 20 in his first three seasons.
As White moved up the order after his 2000 debut, so did his stats. In the 2006/07 Sheffield Shield, he averaged a tick under 40. The next season, just under 50. The next, nearly 58. And last season, 47. In between were prolific 50-plus seasons in country cricket.
Then there was his recent gritty century against the touring English side in the Australia A game in Hobart, when the more fancied challengers failed. There is more to his ability than as a limited-overs power hitter. 16 first-class hundreds don’t speak of a lower-order cudgelman having a lucky flail.
Criticising his Test batting record is also a popular tack, though senseless, given he’s never had the chance to fail.
In White’s four Tests in India in 2008, he was played as a spinner and forced to bat at No. 8. Genuine batsmen generally struggle that low down, distracted by the change in their role and unable to build an innings as they normally might.
Still, White’s seven innings ended up with two not outs, a 44, and a 46, mostly while batting without top-order support. There’s nothing to suggest that the backing of a top-order spot wouldn’t give a far greater yield.
In fact White’s case is reminiscent of Steve Waugh’s.
Waugh started out as a bits and pieces player: handy bowler, handy bat. He took four years to get his first Test hundred, and averaged 36 after 46 Test matches. Yet by hard work and sheer determination, Waugh rose to become the pre-eminent batsman of his day, and despite the handicap of his early career, ended with a Test average of over 51. For several years there, if there was a guy batting for your life, you wanted S.R. Waugh at the crease.
Then there was Andrew Symonds, a one-day smasher with greater potential. Again, the selectors gave him time and top-six backing. Though it tested the patience of some, the investment paid off. Symonds showed the world and himself that he had what it took, as a valuable Test batsman, a useful bowler, and an outstanding fieldsman.
White could be very much in the same mould. His attacking play makes him a potential game-breaker, of the sort Australia has lacked in recent years. His much-maligned bowling could still prove a handy option: 172 first-class wickets at 40 isn’t terrible, and the man dismissed Tendulkar twice in Tests.
And for what it’s worth, he’s also an outstanding slip fieldsman, something missing since Shane Warne and Mark Waugh rode off into the sunset. Ponting is very good, but his athleticism and ability to throw down stumps are wasted in that position.
In every facet of the game, White would bring something to the team, but leadership is the most important. Australia’s future would be looking far more stable if he had already notched a dozen Tests.
At present, Ponting’s legacy looks likely to be that of a great player and an average leader. Depending how the next five days go by, it may be time to see whether a great leader is what Australia needs.