Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Next Great Challenge

Ricky Ponting has resigned as Australian captain. And it could be the best decision he's ever made.

Though his abilities with the wand are waning, Ponting still remains Australia's best batsman against the spinning ball and could provide a useful resource for his probable successor Michael Clarke. The decision to resign but not retire ranks with his most mature choices as a leader and is also in keeping with his "lead by example" philosophy.

In Australia it is unusual to abdicate the captaincy. Kim Hughes did so under extremely stressful circumstances, the target of a West Indies pace quartet in their pomp. He also promptly lost his place in the side. Since the war, only Ian Chappell maintained his position in the side after relinquishing the reins. Chappell, like Ponting, had the forceful personality that Hughes lacked and was perhaps still the nation's second-best bat. Ponting still has a role to play, but his time at the top had come to an end and it's refreshing to see such a hard nut accept the circumstances and bow out relatively gracefully.

There is much to like about an Australian side with Ponting not at the helm but still involved. Australia has chosen consciously focused on blooding new talent over the past four years. The bowling ranks have shown the most potential for regrowth with players like Trent Copeland, James Pattinson and Michael Beer leading the way. Cycling Australia's attack may blood youngsters with a minimum of pressure at the expense of some penetration and arguably, the nation has the fast men to back up this rotation.

It is not so with their batting. The 1960s and 1970s in Australia produced the best concentrated burst of batsmanship in history. The 1980s and 1990s seem far less promising - Callum Ferguson remains an inconsistent proposition, Phil Hughes has the eye of a magician but the technique of a lumberjack and Usman Khawaja, potential and all, is likely to score a lot of very pretty thirties. And as proved throughout the recent subcontinental World Cup, Australia struggles against quality spin bowling - or any deviating ball.

The two greatest criticisms of Ponting as Captain included his only-adequate tactical acumen and his temperament. These downfalls mean he may not necessarily make the best head coach, but because of his unquestioned abilities to inspire and teach, he may become Justin Langer's successor as Australia's batting coach. Never the erudite diplomat like Steve Waugh or Mark Taylor - or even as insightful like Allan Border - Ponting's continued future in cricket should be as a specialist coach. It behoves Cricket Australia to begin this transition now - tell him outright the last days of Ricky Ponting are to mentor Khawaja, Hughes, Ferguson and Mitch Marsh without the crippling pressure of running a team.

The Ponting full of the love of the game has been hard to spot for years now as he's been weighed down with expectations, trying to drag a fading team back into relevance. His greatest leadership contribution may not be the 5-0 whitewash of England or his masterful 2003 World Cup Final century. It could - should? - be marked improvement in the fortunes of the next generation.

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