With Australia in chaos after a string of defeats, former captain Ricky Ponting is watching on with interest and insight. He might yet have more of a role to play in the team’s recovery than simply commentating on it.
It feels apt in this brittle moment for Australian cricket that the most uncompromising player of his era isn’t in a tracksuit attending to a punchdrunk first XI – or even cosied up next to Tubs, Heals and Slats in the echo chamber of the Channel Nine box – but here in an east London café on a cold Monday morning, 11,000 miles away from his hometown in Tasmania and Australia’s latest tragi-comedy.
Ponting has been wintering in England, calling the first two Tests of the Australia-South Africa series as part of BT Sport’s deal to screen Australia’s summer in the UK. Not for the first time he’s been the star of the show, thinking fast, talking fast, never missing a beat. “I’m pretty straight with the way I say things and the way I see the game. You’ve gotta say it the way you see it. That’s what I believe anyway.”
The Hobart Test, for all the graffiti on the wall, is still technically alive when we meet over breakfast soon after the show has finished for the night. When we spoke, South Africa, already 1-0 up, still needed eight wickets to consign Australia to a fifth straight Test defeat, but after Australia’s horrorshow first innings – 85 all out in 32 overs – there’s cautious optimism that second time around they’ll get that mongrel yapping again.
“I’ve been a bit defensive over the last couple of games,” he says, “because I know the guys are better than they’ve shown. They’ll be shocked and disappointed to be bowled out for 85, but I think they’ll more rue the opportunity they had in Perth [in the first Test], not to win that game. They had South Africa pretty much exactly where they wanted them to be and an hour and a half later it had gone away from them. Australia hasn’t grabbed the opportunities they’ve been offered.”
Defeat in Hobart would be Steve Smith’s tenth straight defeat in all formats, but Ponting refutes the idea that the wolves are circling around the skipper. “I don’t think so. Up until the start of the Sri Lanka series [which Australia lost 3-0] Smith had seven wins and four draws, so he hadn’t lost a game in his first 11 Tests.”
Still, five Test defeats on the bounce would be unheard of. “Yeah, it would be, yeah, if they lose this one. It is unheard of.
“But it’s a tricky one with captains. Because we all know that captains are wholly and solely responsible for results, but you’re not fully accountable because you don’t have full control of everything that happens around the game. That’s why I pressed so long for the captain to be a selector. I’ve got no doubt in my mind that Steve Smith’s the right man for the job. But we’ll see. He’s got to find a way to get the best out of his players. They’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Momentous indeed. Resuming on 121-2, needing to double that score to make South Africa bat again, Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith take guard under portentous Tasmanian skies. In all, it takes less than two hours. Australia lose eight for 40, going down by an innings and 80 runs.
Two days on from Hobart, with Australia coming to terms with a third straight series defeat against South Africa – make that 25 years since the Baggy Green last gave up three home rubbers on the bounce against the same opposition – the first shockwave resignation. “This is my own decision and no one within Cricket Australia has pressured me or even suggested that I should do this,” says Rod Marsh, chairman of selectors, and a man of unimpeachable stature within Australian cricket culture. “Clearly, though, it is time for some fresh thinking, just as it is for our Test team to welcome some new faces as we build for the future. I have always had the best interests of Australian cricket foremost in my heart. We will be great again.”
Suddenly no one at the top of Australian cricket is immune. Where once Darren Lehmann was applauded for bringing in a more matey ethos following the schoolmasterly Mickey Arthur regime, now the head coach’s everyman schtick has begun to jar in the face of continual, paralysing batting failures. “Lehmann’s got a contract now to 2019,” Ponting says, “not that contracts mean much these days. He’s all about trying to find ways to improve all the time. You can look back and say that they haven’t improved much in the last few months.
“But before the Sri Lankan series Australia were No.1 in Tests and one-dayers, so they’d obviously done things right for a long period of time before the last couple of series.
“Look, the coaches can coach as much as they like but it’s down to the players to stand up and do something about it, and not be happy with mediocre performances. You can’t tell me that Dean Elgar’s a better player technically than Usman Khawaja, but they’ve just got the job done when they’ve had to.”
Ponting is unconvinced that Lehmann – or by extension Australia’s glum-faced batting coach Graeme Hick, whose hangdog expression during the last rites at Hobart took English observers of a certain vintage careering back through the decades – can have much impact on the techniques of players at international level.
“Unfortunately the Australian coach can’t change technique. By the time players get there it’s almost too late. That’s what I’ve always said about cricket coaching in general – it’s always around the wrong way, you’ve got your so-called best skilled coaches coaching the national team when they should be down there coaching the kids so they’re ready to go when they get there.
“I think once again – and Cricket Australia know this, I’ve been telling them this for a hundred years – they have to look at maybe paying State coaches more and trying to get the so-called experts in the game. And it’s the same in England. If you look through the greats of the game, how many of those guys are actually back inside the system coaching somewhere? They’re not, they’re all sitting back behind a microphone commentating because they get paid more and it’s less intrusive time-wise. I think it’s something that needs to be looked at.”
Tucking into their breakfasts on the BT Sport account, the assembled hordes of English hackery let this one slide. So perhaps Ponting, three years into retirement, is no different to those Channel Nine totems who, when all’s said and done, prefer to put their mouth where the money is. But I’m not so sure. It’s hard to see Ponting staying the comfy side of the microphone forever. He freely admits that after retirement he needed to put some distance between himself and the game – “I had to take myself off away, because I knew the more I watched it, the more I’d miss it, and the more I’d want to play it” – but now he’s back and as forceful as ever.
Naturally enough, the conversation rolls on to England, scrapping away in India, and the recent conjecture about how long Alastair Cook is prepared to carry on as England captain. “The thing with the captaincy is it does really wear you down. And the older you get, when you’re trying to look after and maintain your own game, the extra responsibility of captaincy can take its toll on your game. I’ve been reading about what he’s said about the way he’s played in Bangladesh and in India, even though he made that hundred, he’s said that he’s felt awful the whole time.
“The longer that Joe Root or the next captain can have leading into the next Ashes series would be beneficial, for all the obvious reasons. With everything that comes around an Ashes series, whether it’s the pressure on the play, the pressure in the media, everything is magnified probably 5-10 times to every other Test series.”
And where are the two teams in relation to one another? “I think it’s fair to say right now that if you look at the England team and the Australia team then England’s team is more settled. That’s realistically where we are. But then it’s 12 months until the next Ashes…”
Optimistic Australian cricket fans – and they’re still out there, for there’s no more resilient cricketing nation on earth – may well choose to read that last paragraph, and, for that matter, all the others, as a ‘come and get me’ plea.