The Ashes: limitations of Ponting’s captaincy exposed

Ricky PontingAfter an improbably eventful opening session notable for spasmodically incisive bowling and wayward batting, the first Test settled into a steady pace as England’s third-wicket pair ground down an attack that threatened briefly before falling back into a holding operation.It was a workmanlike start to a contest trying to live up to expectations on a supine surface.By no means was the beginning as dramatic as the opening exchanges at Lord’s in 2005. But, then, the pitch was duller and the venue more provincial. The Ashes: Score card Not even Mitchell Johnson, as tall as a basketballer, was able to extract any bounce, or not in his first spell anyhow.Sophia Gardens lived up to its reputation for providing moribund surfaces favouring front-foot batsmen and, latterly, spinners.Anything dropped short was easily put away and watchful batsmen were difficult to dislodge.By mid afternoon Ricky Ponting had thrown the ball to his spinners, a specialist and an occasional, and spread his field.But he overdid the tactic, persevering with his mild tweakers for overs upon end, denying Johnson opportunities to bowl at his favoured River End and keeping Ben Hilfenhaus inactive for almost the entire afternoon.Instead, the batsmen were permitted to collect patiently with sweeps and glides to cover against tidy tweakers. Hereabouts the limitations of the attack were exposed. So was Ponting’s captaincy. With runs on the board and the pitch ageing, England’s spinners ought to be a more awkward proposition.Australia had surprised themselves by taking three wickets in the morning. Losing the toss had been a blow to a touring team down on its luck and denied the services of several eminent players. Overnight Ponting had faced a tricky decision about the construction of his side, a choice so awkward that as his team warmed up all and sundry were searching for clues about his verdict. Hilfenhaus was observed marking out his run, evidence that he had made the cut. To widespread surprise Stuart Clark seemed to be hanging around the fringes. Nathan Hauritz was observed loosening his muscles.Having included the off spinner, Ponting promptly made the mistake of giving him too much responsibility. Giving Hauritz a 14-over stint and asking Michael Clarke to back him up hardly seemed the way to go. Moreover Ponting placed three men on the boundary, sometimes four. Not much of a way to win a Test match. England’s batsmen were able to play themselves into form. It was a huge concession to make on the first day of an Ashes campaign.Australia were dangerous only in the periods when the bowlers produced the aggression so singularly missing in the pitch. Not for the first time Peter Siddle woke up the attack with a potent opening burst.The Victorian knows no defeat, gives no ground to docile decks, and immediately set about shaking up the batsmen.That the first wicket fell to his partner was mere coincidence. By hurling himself into the fray, Siddle had changed the atmosphere.Hilfenhaus responded with a more penetrating burst and for the first time the home openers were put under pressure. Alastair Cook promptly produced an airy stroke outside off-stump that sent the ball flashing towards gully, where Michael Hussey took an athletic catch.Next Siddle welcomed Ravi Bopara, England’s dashing first drop, with a bumper that the swaying batsmen took on the chest.Now both sides knew that the Ashes were properly under way. Not that batting looked difficult as Andrew Strauss tried to strike the first blow in the crucial battle between the captains.Not that the pitch showed any nascent signs of life. Just that the pace bowlers had started chasing scalps as opposed to waiting for them to arrive on a plate.Presently Hilfenhaus was withdrawn after a seven-over spell that improved as it went along. England fought back from the early wicket and began to look secure. Strauss set about establishing his innings with a typically pragmatic innings but did not survive until lunch as Johnson suddenly produced a searing over.And with lunch approaching Johnson struck again with a slower ball that fooled England’s careless first drop.Hereabouts the match hung in the balance. England were on the brink of wasting their opportunity.All the more surprising, then, to see the Australians take their foot off the throat in the afternoon.
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