Roebuck's best innings

I have never been a big fan of Peter Roebuck. In the last few days, he has written two good articles in the Sydney Morning Herald.

The latest piece is probably the best contribution Roebuck has given to the game of cricket.

Arrogant Ponting must be fired

January 8, 2008

The Australian captain's disrespect for his opponents has embarrassed his country, writes Peter Roebuck.

RICKY PONTING must be sacked as captain of the Australian cricket team. If Cricket Australia cares a fig for the tattered reputation of our national team in our national sport, it will not for a moment longer tolerate the sort of arrogant and abrasive conduct seen from the captain and his senior players over the past few days. Beyond comparison it was the ugliest performance put up by an Australian side for 20 years. The only surprising part of it is that the Indians have not packed their bags and gone home. There is no justice for them in this country, nor any manners.

That the senior players in the Australian team are oblivious to the fury they raised among many followers of the game in this country and beyond merely confirms their own narrow and self-obsessed viewpoint. Doubtless they were not exposed to the messages that poured in from distressed enthusiasts aghast to see the scenes of bad sportsmanship and triumphalism presented at the SCG during and after the Test. Pained past players rang to express their disgust. It was a wretched and ill-mannered display and not to be endured from any side, let alone an international outfit representing a proud sporting nation.

Make no mistake, it is not only the reputation of these cricketers that has suffered. Australia itself has been embarrassed. The notion that Ponting can hereafter take the Australian team to India is preposterous. He has shown not the slightest interest in the well-being of the game, not the slightest sign of diplomatic skills, not a single mark of respect for his accomplished and widely admired opponents.

Harbhajan Singh can be an irritating young man but he is head of a family and responsible for raising nine people. And all the Australian elders want to do is to hunt him from the game. Australian fieldsmen fire insults from the corners of their mouths, an intemperate Sikh warrior overreacts and his rudeness is seized upon. It might impress barrack room lawyers.

In the past few days Ponting has presided over a performance that dragged the game into the pits. He turned a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs. As much can be told from the conduct of his closest allies in the team. As usual, Matthew Hayden crossed himself upon reaching three figures in his commanding second innings, a gesture he does not perform while wearing the colours of his state. Exactly how he combines his faith with throwing his weight around on the field has long bemused opposing sides, whose fondness for him ran out a long time ago. Hayden has much better in him.

Michael Clarke also had a dreadful match but he is a young man and has time to rethink his outlook. That his mind was in disarray could be told from his batting. In the first innings he offered no shot to a straight ball and in the second he remained at the crease after giving an easy catch to slip. On this evidence Clarke cannot be promoted to the vice-captaincy of his country. It is a captain's primary task to rear his younger players and to prepare his successor for the ordeals of office. Nothing need be said about the catch Clarke took in the second innings except that in the prevailing circumstances the umpires were ill-advised to take anyone's word for anything.

The Indians were convinced Ponting grounded a catch he claimed on the final afternoon at the SCG. Throughout those heated hours, the Australian remained hostile, kicking the ground, demanding decisions, pressuring the umpires. So much for the corporate smile that has been produced these last few years.

Probably the worst aspect of the Australians' performance was their conduct at the end. When the last catch was taken they formed into a huddle and started jumping up and down like teenagers at a rave. It was not euphoria. It was ecstasy. They had swallowed a dangerous pill called vengeance. Not one player so much as thought about shaking hands with the defeated and departing. So much for Andrew Flintoff consoling a stricken opponent in his hour of defeat.

Nor could Ponting and Gilchrist stop themselves publicly chiding Tony Greig for daring to criticise the timing of the declaration. They should have been thanking their lucky stars that three wickets had fallen in five balls, one of them in dubious circumstances. Australia had 150 runs and five minutes to spare. It was unfitting conduct from an Australian captain or vice-captain. By all accounts Ponting was later rude towards Indian reporters at his news conference.

Ponting has not provided the leadership expected from an Australian cricket captain and so must be sacked. On this evidence the time has also come to thank Hayden and Gilchrist for their services. None of them are bad fellows. All will look back on this match not as their finest hour but their worst. Obviously a new captain and side is required. But that is a task for another day. It is possible to love a country and not its cricket team.


An irksome child must be ignored, not confronted

Ricky Ponting has had a fractious match at the SCG. From a distance it is hard to avoid thinking that he has allowed a petty squabble with an immature opponent to affect his judgment.

His confrontation with Harbhajan Singh has taken a toll of his form as a batsman and tactician. He has seemed jerky and distracted. Always it is a mistake to play the man and not the ball. His captaincy has suffered. Far from fulfilling his role as a peacemaker, he fanned the flames of hostility. It is to be hoped that soon normal service is resumed. Apart from anything else it has been a cracking match.

By letting Harbhajan get under his skin, the Australian captain has played into his hands. To make matters worse he has neither recognised nor contained his irritation so that it has turned into something easily mistaken for rage. No other explanation can be found for the sequence of events that has unfolded in Sydney, events that have shown all concerned in a poor light.

Doubtless Ponting's hackles were raised before the match had started by his rival's provocative but off-the-cuff remark about his form. To rub salt into the wound, the Tasmanian promptly lost his wicket to the turbanned tweaker in the worst possible circumstances, a rotten leg before decision from an umpire unable to detect a thick inside edge. The sight of Harbhajan celebrating by charging around the field like Courtney Walsh after taking the 10th Australian wicket in Adelaide did not help.

Usually Ponting manages to contain his disappointment at bad decisions until he has reached the supposed privacy of the rooms. Not this time. Instead, he thumped an advertising board on his way up the steps into the pavilion and then hurled his bat in full view of members sitting outside. Here was a man whose emotions were overheating. Team officials should have read the signs and offered discreet counsel.

The rest had an air of inevitability about it. Harbhajan's partnership with Sachin Tendulkar began as a nuisance and rapidly became a threat. As the partnership gathered momentum so local hopes of securing a lead faded. Meanwhile, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson were worked to the bone, but Australia looked weary and vulnerable. Ponting's grip was slipping.

Next came the outbreak of hostilities that has become such a talking point. Out of the blue, Harbhajan and Andrew Symonds were to be seen deep in aggravated conversation, the local firing remarks from the corner of his mouth, the visitor responding with something unpleasant. Before long Matthew Hayden was adding his point of view. No one will be surprised by the identity of the combatants - the usual suspects, the muscular Queenslanders and the intemperate Sikh.

Just for a moment it seemed that tempers might cool. Just for a moment it seemed that cricket might prevail. Tendulkar tried to restore diplomatic relations. He is a class act. The umpires indicated that they had not heard anything. It's about the only thing they have got right in the match. Although the umpiring lobby will argue the case, two more dreadful decisions were made yesterday. Meanwhile, Harbhajan tried to withdraw a presumably insulting remark. Hereabouts it seemed that the storm might have passed. But the Queenslanders were having none of it. Ponting and his vice-captain were no more amenable to an apology. In their view, Harbhajan had crossed the line. And so cricket took a back seat and the matter was sent to the beaks.

Doubtless Ponting felt obliged to stand by his men. He might have considered telling them to watch their tongues beforehand. He must have known how it would look to outsiders, an Australian team throwing its weight around in a time of trouble. Not that Harbhajan is an innocent bystander. Kumble needs to take him in hand. It is not possible to be involved in so many stoushes and always to be innocent. Of course the same applies to the powerful Australians.

But Ponting could have graciously accepted the withdrawal and advised his players to retain their dignity.

Afterwards Ponting could have informed his respected counterpart that his team had taken exception to certain remarks addressed to them by one of his young players. The Indian captain could then have raised his objections. Instead the noisy Australians sought their version of justice. Now the usual array of lawyers will be summoned and it will be one man's word against another.

The aftermath was inevitable. Ponting groped at his first ball from Harbhajan and lamely lobbed to slip. His best moment came later as he emerged a runner for a stricken colleague. Until then he had been responding to events, not dictating them. It is not his usual practice, and it is not going to work.

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