Merits of a captain

Ricky Ponting...shrewd skipper.-PTI

The most ruthless selectors in world cricket — men capable of taking a look at an Allan Border or a Steve Waugh and saying “there isn't another series in that guy” — have clearly decided that there is no credible replacement for Ricky Ponting, writes Ted Corbett.

There is a simple formula for improving the performance of any sports team. Sack the boss.

Football gets rid of managers so quickly even their own fans are unsure who is in charge at any given time. Some county cricket sides have as many as three captains in a summer. Lose three matches in a row in the brief season that is inhabited by American football and, as I heard recently, the commentators start shouting that the franchise owner “will soon start looking for someone new.”

It does not work, by the way. The new guy may inspire his men for a few matches, but after that — unless he can introduce newcomers who lift the skill factor, the tempo and the experience level — the effect quickly wears off and defeats loom once again.

That preamble is based on a simple Tests statistic. Since World War II, England have had 42 captains. Australia have had only 42 since the Ashes were first contested in 1877. It must explain why the Aussies have been in the ascendancy most of the time.

As yet another Ashes series gets underway — in Brisbane on November 25 to be exact — a strange situation has arisen for those restrained Australian selectors. How wise they are.

Although, as I write, the Aussies have lost six matches out of seven, there is no more chance Ricky Ponting will be sacrificed than there is that Earth will be invaded by Martians.

The most ruthless selectors in world cricket — men capable of taking a look at an Allan Border or a Steve Waugh and saying “there isn't another series in that guy” — have clearly decided that there is no credible replacement for Ponting and that, even with an attack shrunk by the retirement of Warne and McGrath and a batting line-up reliant on old men, he is their only path to success.

They could gamble by replacing him with, for instance, Shane Watson whose transformation since he stepped up to open the innings shows he has the ability to change his game. I also read good things about Marcus North but he has shrugged off talk of the captaincy.

Michael Clarke has been a disappointment — when as in a recent match Ponting was absent at his grandmother's funeral — and Ponting is more likely to pull off the trick that wins a close-run match.

Besides Australia need his runs. The wretched display recently in Melbourne when they allowed the Sri Lankan late order to win a one-day match would not have happened under Ponting because his innings would — I guess — have provided enough runs instead of the paltry 239 Clarke's men produced.

Some of you may have concluded that I am not too fond of the captaincy merits of Andrew Strauss but he has his feet firmly under the table. He has the voice of authority and the restrained language that his employers like; never mind that sometimes he looks as if he has a winning hand and does not know which card to play first.

They tell me he has the confidence of his players; well, that is a start. I just wish he had learnt his trade in club or county cricket which is why I grow suspicious every time I see him head for the pavilion in mid-session, presumably to ask coach Andy Flower if it is time to give the wicket-keeper an over or two.

The England selectors were wrong when they got rid of Kevin Pietersen immediately after he had shown his unexpected skills by persuading the team to return to India after the attack on Mumbai.

They were also wrong to appoint Andrew Flintoff as captain instead of Strauss for the last Ashes trip to Australia but, as Michael Vaughan has reminded us, Flintoff said he wanted the job and Strauss stayed quiet.

I don't think it will matter that Strauss is not sure of the exact spot for mid-wicket when Ponting is in full flow. His runs will suffice. England ought to win this series against the least adept, most rag-tag-and-bobtail Aussie side I can remember since Mike Gatting's shrewd professionals won Down Under in 1986-87.

Stuart Broad or Graeme Swann will be the England Man of the Series. The batsmen — led by Jonathan Trott and perhaps by Pietersen, although I have lost count of the times his peers have forecast a return to form without result — are too patient, too skilled, and too knowledgeable for this ordinary Australian attack.

Throw in that tough looking, tough talking 'keeper Matt Prior — just the character you need among the flinty-eyed men who live by such an unyielding set of rules and so many rough words — and you have a team to win handsomely in Australia and force their selectors to rethink who leads their men.

That is exactly what the jingoistic sports writers said in 1959 when the greatest team to leave England stepped on to Australian soil and lost 4-0.

Coach Flower has improved the fielding of everyone; he seems to be a winner. A little fine-tuning and Flower has done so much good work he might as well go home, says Mike Atherton.

If he does so, let us hope he leaves Strauss a note about field placings, bowling changes and, oh you know, all that other captaincy stuff.

Otherwise, by the time England return from the World Cup, the selectors may be looking for captain No. 80 even if Australia don't think they need leader No. 43.