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Ponting's grip loosens as Australia flounder

Posted in England in Australia 2010-11

Ricky Ponting

Ricky Ponting perishes for 12 in Perth. He has scored just 82 runs in five innings

Ricky Ponting’s treatment during this Ashes series is proof that the worm has turned.

Targeting the visiting captain is a mantra that runs through every tour Down Under, and barely a day went by in the build-up to this trip when England skipper Andrew Strauss wasn’t reminded of the barrage he could expect as leader of the opposition.

Ponting, however, has found himself under by far the greatest fire, not only from the England bowlers but also from his compatriots.

He has grown accustomed to criticism of his captaincy in recent years, from predecessors and former team-mates alike, yet a miserable run of form in the opening two and a half Tests has cast a growing number of doubts over his merits as a batsman.

Today he managed just 12 runs, his second highest score of the series. He has mustered just 82 runs in five attempts and, given that 51 of those came in a largely irrelevant second-innings effort in Brisbane, a telling contribution eludes him.

Ponting, so some say, is not the player he was. His eyes, apparently, aren’t what they used to be; there are suggestions that he is increasingly susceptible to the short ball; and there have even been whispers of a move down the order to protect him from exposure to the new ball.

All this is written with one eye on a record of the highest calibre (as I type I have an internet window open showing Ponting’s tally of 12,320 runs at an average of 54.27 in 150 Tests prior to this game), and in the knowledge that a sizeable second-innings score may well silence many, if not all, of the doubters.

However, his innings - and dismissal - today, was indicative of the current malaise in the Australia team, who are playing with a lack of confidence seen all too rarely over the last decade and a half.

Ponting, whose penchant for going hard at the ball early in his innings is well known, edged the third delivery he faced between third slip and gully as he played back to Chris Tremlett.

James Anderson & Ricky Ponting

James Anderson bids Ponting farewell after locating his edge on another chastening day for the Australia skipper

There was considerably more authority in a pull through midwicket off the same bowler, and the sweetly timed clip of his pads at James Anderson’s expense in the next over underlined an intention to attack his way out of form.

Anderson cut short any notion of a recuperative innings by removing Ponting two balls later, although not without considerable assistance from Paul Collingwood, who leaped high to his right to pull off a one-handed catch that made the photographers drool.

Regardless of the brilliance of the catch, it is a shot Ponting need not have played. He was by no means alone - Phil Hughes, Michael Clarke, Steven Smith and Brad Haddin among the established batsmen all perished playing loosely - but one suspects an increasingly unsympathetic Australian press may gloss over that.

Ponting’s bowed head as he left the crease will be interpreted as a sign that the combined burden of leading the team as well as the batting are beginning to grow onerous, though rest assured there will be no admission by the man himself.

It is worth noting that he was faced with the twin threats of a new ball and as green a pitch as many could remember seeing at the WACA, having lost the toss and been asked to bat first.

Ponting admitted he too would have bowled had he won the toss, and it could be argued that other decisions into which he had limited or no input have contributed to the mounting pressure on him.

In not playing a recognised spinner, Australia earned the wrath of no less a judge than Shane Warne. While it may not be on a par with the omission of Nathan Hauritz at the Oval last summer, the fact that Graeme Swann took two wickets on a first-day pitch and Australia must bowl last in this match must have crossed the selectors’ minds at some point today.

Steven Finn & Steven Smith

Steven Finn causes some inconvenience to Steven Smith, whose shortcomings were exposed on a seaming pitch

The man picked to provide the spin threat, part-time leg-spinner Steven Smith, is in the side primarily as a batsman, but the manner in which he struggled against the seaming ball in making a tortuous seven suggested number six is two places too high for him.

Smith made 77 in his most recent Test innings, batting at number eight against Pakistan at Headingley this summer, yet he was deemed good enough only to bat at seven for Australia in the pre-Ashes tour match against England. Within the space of a month he has seemingly become one of the best six batsmen in the country.

It is the latest example of muddled thinking from selectors whose actions, compromised by Australia’s position in a series they must win, have breached the realms of desperation.

How else to describe Mitchell Johnson’s recall after being dropped following the first Test and not playing a game in between? Ditto Ben Hilfenhaus.

Australia named 17 players in their preliminary Ashes squad, yet two of the additions to the party (maybe the wrong choice of word given Australia’s state of mind) for the third Test - Hughes and Michael Beer - came from outside that. Discuss.

One of the explanations for Beer’s inclusion in the squad in Perth - he failed to make the XI - was his knowledge of conditions at the WACA. The selectors chose to ignore this being his first season with Western Australia, during which he has played a meagre three first-class games on the ground.

In all, they made four changes to the team following the innings defeat in Adelaide. England, by contrast, made one - an enforced one at that.

That Tremlett, who came in for Stuart Broad, was the day’s most impressive performer will not have been lost on Ponting.

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