A star team though not a team of stars

Rallying round Ponting… The Australian skipper found the right men to finish off the job during the razor-edge moments in the ODI series against India.-AP

The Australian team may be in transition and its aura in Tests may have diminished, but Ricky Ponting’s men have proved that they love a good fight and are determined to sneak in the last laugh as well, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

The rains in Mumbai washed out the seventh and final One-Day International of the Hero Honda Cup series at the Dr. D. Y. Patil Stadium and triggered a touch of black humour. “Just imagine, practically an Australian ‘A’ side defeated an almost full-strength Indian team minus Zaheer Khan 4-2!” a wag quipped.

The line may have dripped derision over the performance of M. S. Dhoni’s celebrated men, but there was no mistaking the understated awe about the visiting team’s combustive performance despite losing key personnel to injuries right through the three-week tour. “We have had players stepping off the plane and performing right away in this tour, and that makes it special,” gushed Ricky Ponting.

Over the years, the Australian captain has been the binding force that has helped his team cope with a series of stumbles ranging from players’ retirements to two Ashes Series defeats. For a man who had suffered a blow and a black eye in a Kolkata night club many years ago and who even admitted during his early days of having an ‘alcohol-problem’, Ponting has put in the hard yards, emerged as the nearest challenger to Sachin Tendulkar’s throne of batting greatness and has marshalled the Australian team to two World Cup triumphs.

The ‘Punter’, as Ponting is known in the Australian dressing room, has surely bucked the odds. He may not have the tough-as-nails persona of Allan Border, the inescapable coolness of Mark Taylor or the gravitas of Steve Waugh — who are all eminent men, great players and strong leaders — but Ponting has slipped into the mantle of Australian skipper with ease and has made his predecessors proud.

Perhaps in terms of context and situation, Ponting’s rise to the hot seat comes closest to what Border had to cope with in December 1984. The then Australian captain, Kim Hughes, wept his way through a resignation and Border was saddled with a team that was yet to come to terms with the retirement of the golden trio of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Rodney Marsh.

Border did go through the horrors of losing the Ashes at home in the 1986-87 season, but he soon chiselled a team that reflected his own image — tough and uncompromising.

Border read the riot act to his team and it meant: ‘chuck the post-match beer with rivals’. Soon an aggressive Australian team had reclaimed the Ashes and almost kept it forever until Ponting became the aggrieved captain to lose it in England in 2005, a series remembered for Andrew Flintoff’s uncorking of the Ian Botham spirit.

Border asked a tremulous Dean Jones to get on with the job of scoring a double hundred in searing hot Chennai during the 1986 tour in a Test which resulted in the second tie in cricketing history. Jones threw-up, wet his pants, as he admitted many years later, but gritted his teeth through an epic innings. It was perhaps Border’s way of asking his team to grow up. And grow up it did as a clutch of hard-boiled professionals emerged — David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Steve Waugh, Jones and Craig McDermott — to help Australia win the Reliance World Cup in 1987 and set forth on a trip of conquest that eventually nudged out the West Indies from the top.

Luckily for Ponting, he inherited a team that seemed to have set its success in stone. His predecessors, Border, Taylor and Waugh, in their contrasting ways, had moulded a bunch of world beaters and it helped that men like Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were part of the winning combination. Add to it the explosive Adam Gilchrist and Ponting was truly blessed with a team that was on a steady upswing.

However, the fine-print of retirements did unsettle the squad and as McGrath, Warne, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn bowed out, followed by Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, Ponting was back in the old-Border territory of rebuilding a team from scratch.

The recent Indian tour that witnessed Ponting’s men arrive bleary-eyed in Mumbai late October and finally leave bright-eyed and savouring a triumph that the skipper said was as special as the World Cup and Champions Trophy victories, proved that the Australian team, though a work in progress, is heading in the right direction. “We always knew that it will be tough against the Indians but I am happy with the spirit that my team showed. It is a good preparation for the 2011 World Cup. Our overall game was superior and our fielding was a key element,” Ponting said.

The Australian skipper was on the money when he ran-out Yuvraj Singh in the Mohali one-dayer and that perhaps turned the tide in favour of his squad. Australia won that match to draw level 2-2 and then won the matches in Hyderabad and Guwahati to claim the series and ensure that the team returned home with its number one status intact.

“We never underestimated the Australians. They are a good side, they have some good batsmen and they compete hard,” Dhoni said.

Inevitably Ponting found the right men during the razor-edge moments. India needed nine off the last over in the first one-dayer in Vadodara. Ponting, hamstrung by an injured Brett Lee, handed the ball to Peter Siddle and the seamer got rid of Harbhajan Singh and ensured Australia’s victory as India fell short by four runs. “It was good for Siddle. The exposure will do him good. I am sure he has never been in this situation before,” Ponting said.

Later, when Tim Paine pulled out with an injury, Ponting spent long hours with Shaun Marsh in the nets. The young opener was going through a low phase but the captain backed him to the hilt and the result was a 112 in Hyderabad that was over-shadowed by Sachin Tendulkar’s superlative 175. Yet, it was Marsh who nursed his spirits in a glass on an edge-of-the-seat night.

Ponting had his headaches over a squad that was plagued by injuries, but he never displayed fragility. Lee, Paine, James Hopes, Siddle and Moises Henriques left for Australia with niggling injuries while Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin and Nathan Bracken never came to India for the ODI series. Ponting himself failed to score a century in the series and yet he posted 267 at an average of 44.50 and handled his tormentors — Harbhajan and Ishant Sharma — with ease. His counter-attack against Ishant in Mohali proved to be an effective psychological ploy.

The key was that as a collective unit, the Australian batsmen, led by their redoubtable vice-captain Michael Hussey (313 runs), came to the party and prospered. And all-rounder Shane Watson too regained his form while India had its highs over Dhoni’s 124 in Nagpur and Tendulkar’s 175 in Hyderabad without anything substantial in-between. “Most of our players did well while for India only a few stars contributed,” Ponting said.

The Australian skipper was also helped by a squad that refused to be overwhelmed by the Indian conditions. “As a fast bowler you have to keep your chin up and bowl in the right areas,” said left-arm seamer Doug Bollinger, who claimed nine wickets. The Australian team may be in transition and its aura in Tests may have diminished, but Ponting’s men have proved that they love a good fight and are determined to sneak in the last laugh as well.