One version of the Ricky Ponting urban legend has it that during a big night he was given a black eye by a transvestite. To save further confusion about gender roles let us make one thing perfectly clear: despite his claim to the contrary, Ricky Ponting was never the man for Australia. As a fielding captain, Ponting has only ever had two real plans: 1. Give the ball to McGrath; and 2. Give the ball to Warne. Ponting was appointed captain at a time when a mildly trained monkey would have done.
Unfortunately. Ponting as captain is the path the selectors chose. I say “unfortunately” not because his tenure has been a failure but because the succession planning has. At 36 Ponting is close to the end of his career. While he can still perform at the level required his form and talent are certainly tapering. All that may prolong his career at this late stage is the search for a replacement. And there are more than a few of his teammates in the same position.
For a long time Australia had a number of seemingly ready-made replacements who were capable of stepping into the team and performing. Darren Lehman and Michael Hussey both had over 10, 000 first-class runs to their names before they were given an opportunity. Brad Hodge ended with over 17, 000, and despite averaging 55.88 in the five-day game only managed six test matches. Marcus North has also scored over 10, 000 first-class runs. Matthew Hayden has nearly 25, 000 to his name and Justin Langer has over 28, 000. The list could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Australian cricket—for a long time—has had a number of batsmen with plenty of runs waiting to step into the national side.
Compare that with now. Some of the loudest calls for inclusion are for Usman Khawaja. This young man has had an impressive start to his first-class career but has only just passed 2, 000 runs. Callum Ferguson has scored over 3, 000 runs but at a much lower average than Khawaja. There is no particular reason that either young man could not step up and be a fine Test cricketer, but they are going to need longer in the side than Australia seems interested in granting. This is particularly the case for the specialist spinner.
Since Warne’s retirement at the end of the last home Ashes series in 2006/7, Australia have gone through an unseemly amount of spinners and are further than ever from finding a replacement. The fast bowling stocks are only slightly better off. Once Ponting had exhausted McGrath and Warne he always had Brett Lee, who took over 310 Test wickets. The current crop of fast bowlers don’t look like getting 20 wickets in a Test match between them, let alone 300 over a career. And that’s where Ponting’s failure is most acute—a lack of clear plans for dismissing batsmen.
So where to next for Australia? The World Cup is only a little over a month away so I wouldn’t be making a move on the Test side until after that. Even then Australia’s Test schedule isn’t clear. The ICC’s Future Tours program—from 2006—has Australia going to Bangladesh in April, hosting Zimbabwe in June, before going to Sri Lanka in August. A tour of Bangladesh is probably as good as any time to trial a new captain and a new(ish) side.
(EDIT: Apparently the Bangladesh and Zimbabwe series are not happening.)
So between now and next summer here is a quick rundown of what I think should happen with the Australian side.
1. Shane Watson is an unlikely opener but he has done a fine job. Perhaps he would provide better value down the order, but with Katich’s career seemingly over there aren’t many options to open the batting.
2. Phil Hughes seems to be a favourite of the selectors. I don’t think he has what it takes to succeed at the toughest level, but if the selectors want him then they need to be prepared to persist with him for a while.
3. Michael Clarke hardly deserves to be first drop but what else can the selectors do? Clarke is young enough and talented enough to turn it around—if he wants to. About the only other candidate for number three is…
4. Michael Hussey. I also think that Hussey is the best possible choice for captain at the moment. Not only has he displayed more backbone this series than any other batsman but his nickname of “Mr Cricket” is well-earned.
5. David Hussey is about the only player in domestic cricket who could step into the side, although at 33 he hardly represents a long-term investment.
6. Ricky Ponting should be given the option to stay on as a batsmen. Rather than seeing the loss of the captaincy as an unbearable slight, he should view it as an unburdening, an opportunity to play with freedom. Even at 36 he is a fine batsman and a fine catcher and fielder. Keeping Ponting on—at least for a bit—will give the rapidly upheaving side some balance, continuity, and experience.
7. Tim Paine. Brad Haddin hasn’t done much wrong, but at 33 he is getting old for a keeper. If Ponting couldn’t be convinced to stay on as a batsman for another year, then Haddin would be worth keeping around, but it’s one or the other.
8. Nathan Hauritz. Look, Hauritz is awful, I know he is. It’s just at this stage there isn’t a better spinner in Australia. At the moment Australia are falling into the trap that plagued England for so long. No confidence in their batting, no confidence in their bowling, and so they pick someone who does both—neither effectively—and suddenly Steven Smith has an undeserved Test career.
9.–11. Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus, Ryan Harris, and Doug Bollinger. Honestly, pulling three names out of a hat is about as good as theory as any other for this lot. Include all five in any squad and you’ll find one injured, and (at least) one horribly out of form. Pick the other three and you’ll be no worse off. Of course, if you have a decent captain then each bowler should have a plan for each batsman that isn’t simply, “Bowl it like McGrath would.”
Well, there you have it. I haven’t pursued a “youth policy” as aggressively as some would like, and I haven’t ended as many careers as the baying Australian public would like. What I have done is put into place a sensible succession plan. And if all goes according to that plan, after the next home summer then Clarke would have proven himself, and another batsmen and another bowler would have emerged from domestic cricket ready to take their place in the Australian cricket team. No matter what actually unfolds over the next year or so, the cricketing public need to accept that the Australian side is going to get worse before it gets better.