Authors: Gideon Haigh
It was the sound of one man snapping. The man was Ricky Ponting. You might lose it too, were you in his position: being stuffed out of sight in the biggest series of your life. But what you must not do, under any circumstances, is lose it with an umpire.
Two days ago, Ricky Ponting was on the front pages of newspapers playing with his beautiful two-year-old daughter, a portrait of contentment. Tomorrow those same front pages will be blazoned with pictures of him browbeating umpire Aleem Dar over a decision in which a) the umpire was right; b) the fielding side was far from unanimous anyway; and c) the cost turned out to be minimal. Worse than a crime, as Talleyrand said, it was a mistake.
This is how it happened. From the last ball of Harris's sixteenth over, the fourth with the second new ball, Kevin Pietersen's forward lunge was cleanly bisected, the ball carrying to Haddin. The keeper raised an arm in appeal, albeit rather quizzically. Harris did not join him; Pietersen looked bemused.
When Dar shook his head minimally, as is his wont, Ponting advanced from mid-off gesturing in favour of a referral. Peter Siddle then crossed from mid-wicket, and a lengthy contretemps ensued, with increasingly frantic gesticulation from Australia's captain, amid apparent grunts of support from the Victorian. Although the review by third umpire Ray Erasmus upheld Dar's decision, the remonstration went on â¦ and on, and on, the umpire looking an increasingly persecuted minority, the Australians distinctly boorish hosts.
The bone of contention was that during the big screen's Hot Spot replay, Siddle had spied a faint white dot near the bottom of the bat â confusing, but nowhere near the trajectory of the ball, and certainly no justification for carrying on an appeal so long that it almost made it to The Hague. The scene carried on amid booing and catcalling from the crowd of 67,149, but as Ponting also exchanged words with Dar's colleague Tony Hill and Pietersen, the general air was of silent disbelief â surely the best Australian batsman of his generation and Australia's winningest captain had not come to this.
In one respect, the Australians deserved commendation: they harnessed their indignation well. Siddle, swung into the attack from the Southern Stand End, had Pietersen lbw minutes later as the batsman moved too far across his crease; he then took two smart catches at fine leg. But not even Cricket Australia's PR team could spin this, Siddle rendering the post-match press conference farcical by declining to answer even the gentlest and most basic questions about the incident. This was an ICC matter, journalists were told as Siddle sat down. No comment. Smirk. No comment. Smirk. Look at me, Mum: I'm saying 'no comment'. There was an old saying in the Soviet Union: 'We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.' At times like these, press conferences achieve comparable futility: they pretend to talk and we pretend to listen.
The incident overshadowed the day, although as far as Australia's Ashes fortunes are concerned not quite enough. At stumps, England were 346 ahead with five second-innings wickets in hand, with Jonathan Trott embedded at the crease on 141, having put on 158 with Matt Prior at a breezy four an over. A general audit of the day was not unflattering to Australia: England added 287 for the loss of five wickets on a day they might have dominated. Having lost the first day by so far, however, the hosts had needed to come rather more than a merely respectable second.
Siddle did most to keep his team in touch, starting the day with a sharp and hostile spell attacking the stumps from the Members' End, having Cook taken at slip by Watson when he failed to negotiate a little extra bounce, and Strauss caught in the gully by a leaping Hussey when one steepled as England's captain tried to drop his wrists. Siddle even got the odd delivery to swing despite the day's bracing cold. Thirty-one runs accrued in the first hour, ten in one over â it was the first period in which Australia had had any presence in the match at all.
England re-established through Pietersen and Trott. Pietersen punched his first boundary from Siddle down the ground, then flipped the next through mid-wicket where a taller, nimbler figure than Clarke might have conjured a catch. From there, his strokes unfurled steadily. When Steve Smith came on at the Members' End to bowl his leg-spin without an outfield fifteen minutes before lunch, Pietersen lit on half-volleys as delightedly as a pedestrian spying a two-pound coin on the pavement, smashing over mid-on then mid-off.
Pietersen and Trott share a country of origin, but, as their careful compilation of 92 in 186 balls showed, not much else. The mercurial Pietersen can bat a little absently, as though in the act of doing something else, the way he performs his preparatory squats as the bowler approaches, and walks forward on the drive; when he's out he tucks his bat under his arm as daintily as an umbrella or a rolled-up newspaper. Mind you, he is in better order than a year ago, when a damaged Achilles tendon had reduced his footwork to an arthritic shuffle. Now he pushes out decisively â even a half-stride from Pietersen is further than most players come forward â and his height equips him to deal with the vagaries of bounce and late movement.
The equable Trott is a cricketer of substantial and visible effort. The sinew bulges in his forearm as he takes his stance, indicative of the rigid top-hand control. He holds his pose after each defensive stroke, inwardly measuring it off against some Platonic ideal, while his attacking shots have a deliberate air, as though chosen judiciously from a range of possibilities. Between balls, of course, he sets to marking his guard, over and over, deeper and deeper, like a hairdresser obsessing over the neatness of a part or a dry-cleaner fretting over a trouser crease.
Siddle again bowled well after lunch and was underneath when Collingwood and Bell failed to keep down hook shots from Johnson. To use football parlance, appropriate given the venue, he qualified hereabouts as a ball magnet. England would have been under greater pressure had Trott (49), coming back for a third on Ponting's arm, not just regained his ground as Hilfenhaus broke the non-striker's stumps. He underwent a penitent stage, dwelling over his next 20 runs, before restoring his momentum with a well-timed on drive and a conspicuously well-controlled hook. Prior (5), meanwhile, enjoyed an unusual stroke of fortune, walking for a palpable nick to the keeper, then staying when Dar detected a not-so-palpable no-ball and called on Erasmus for verification.
It was, literally and figuratively, a false hope. Trott played with undeviating vigilance, Prior with growing freedom, even abandon, taking heavy toll of Smith. As Ponting permutated what ended up as seven bowlers for the rest of the day to no effect, Prior went to a third fifty in nine Ashes Tests, Trott to a third hundred in five.
To his credit, Ponting applauded Trott's milestone spontaneously and lingeringly. Also to his credit, he apologised and pleaded guilty at the evening hearing before ICC referee Ranjan Madugalle, who docked him 40 per cent of his match fee ($5,400) for breaching article 2.1.3 (h) of the code of conduct, which relates to 'arguing or entering into a prolonged discussion with the umpire about his decision'. The court of public opinion may not be so straightforwardly placated.
Every man has his weakness. With Shane Warne, it's blondes. With Ian Chappell, it's Ian Botham â and vice versa. With Ricky Ponting, it's umpires. Other players suffer white-line fever; he has white-coat fever. Few cricketers, and certainly no current international captain, has a poorer reputation: in the presence of officialdom that has somehow crossed him, he is never knowingly outstropped.
So when the red mist descended today and Ponting challenged the authority of Aleem Dar, it was not without a backdrop or context. Australia's leader is a very great cricketer indeed; he also has a tendency to treat umpires not as respected representatives of the Laws of Cricket, but like malfunctioning appliances.
There were a thousand pities to it, but among the deepest was that the incident was so needless. The match did not hinge on whether Kevin Pietersen had edged Ryan Harris to Brad Haddin; it was at best a speculative appeal, in which the bowler for one had hardly joined, and ended up costing Australia next to nothing. Ponting's anger was a day late. His plight is the fault of Australia's batsmen, who made belated Christmas presents of their wickets on Boxing Day.
So it evoked the pressure under which Ponting has played this series, a great player in hard times, the last survivor of a dynasty, a final vestige of former greatness. But it was also not out of character. In fact, if anything was going to push Ponting's buttons, it was a decision with which he did not agree, and an official in the wrong place at the wrong time. Call it displaced anger.
With certain umpires, even good ones, Ponting has developed unpleasant histories. The capable Mark Benson, who first incurred his ire during the DLF Cup in August 2006 for having the courage to reverse a decision, retired last summer after a Test at Adelaide where Ponting rounded on him for rejecting a caught-behind appeal against Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a decision upheld by the technology.
Aleem Dar, the ICC's umpire of the year, first suffered the sharp edge of Ponting's tongue in April 2006, when Australia's captain harangued him in Chittagong over a decision involving Aftab Ahmed. He experienced it again in England's second innings at Brisbane, as Ponting audibly condemned a decision not to grant his claim of a low catch from Alastair Cook as 'piss-weak umpiring', even though Dar was merely the messenger delivering an off-field verdict.
And these are old, old stories. In his own diary of the 2005 Ashes, Ponting documents such episodes as growling at Billy Bowden for not giving Simon Jones out lbw at Edgbaston ('What was wrong with that?') and chewing out Steve Bucknor for giving Damien Martyn out lbw at Old Trafford ('That was a diabolical decision. He smashed that.'). In
account of that series, Ponting's
Duncan Fletcher accused Australia's captain of a policy of conscious intimidation: 'Whenever a decision went against Australia during the series, did you notice how Ponting would invariably walk straight up to the umpire and challenge his decision using overbearing body language?' A policy probably dignifies it; it is, more accurately, a habit. But bad habits poison. When Ponting was fined after upbraiding umpire Norman Malcolm for failing to give Patrick Browne out at Grenada in June 2008, he responded to chidings from Cricket Australia dismissively: 'I don't think I'm ever going to be able to just stay mute, shrug my shoulders and accept bad mistakes as part of the game. That's not me.' He wasn't kidding.
Ponting doesn't bear sole responsibility for today's events. In his attitude to umpires, he has been regrettably indulged. Told he had made a grammatical error, the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund is said to have replied: 'I am King of the Romans and above all grammar.' Authority has failed to disabuse Ponting of his parallel conviction where umpires are concerned. Had the ICC and/or Cricket Australia taken firmer action against Ponting earlier in his career, there might have been no incident today.
One additional factor should be taken into consideration: the dynamic at Perth, where Australia came off the better for a Test visibly shorter of beg-pardons than others in recent years, and where nostalgic local observers felt their sap rise at the sight of an Aussie team going lip-for-lip with an opposition again. The chief executive of the Australian Cricketers' Association, Paul Marsh, went so far as to suggest that the home team had been victims of political correctness â that since Australia's ugly Sydney Test with India three years ago, and the public odium in which the team languished afterwards, Ponting's team had lost their combative edge. 'I think there's no doubt the team's performance has been affected,' Marsh said. 'Hard aggressive cricket is in the Australian team's DNA and unfortunately the players started second-guessing their natural instincts in the heat of battle for fear of reprisal from Cricket Australia or a public backlash from the vocal minority.'
It would not be a surprise if such sentiments found a receptive ear or two in the Australian side, not least with the captain whom in January 2008 bore the brunt of the criticism, sententious op-eds, resignation demands, calls for the revival of public flogging, etc. To be fair, such remarks actually played pretty well in the media too, which enjoys stories emphasising that Test is a four-letter word. But behind vocal minorities sometimes lurk silent majorities, of the kind now deliberating on the legacy of this great cricketer. Their verdict in this matter will be as significant as the ICC's.
For a ground so huge, the MCG empties with remarkable speed. Within five minutes of stumps tonight, the third-day crowd for the Fourth Test of 68,733 had virtually cleared out, leaving the arena to the human bollards of the security staff. While how many will return tomorrow can only be guessed at, one thing is all but guaranteed: they will be either English or masochists.
At the close, Australia were 246 runs from making England bat again, with four wickets remaining. They collapsed today as Hemingway once said a man goes broke: slowly, then all at once, losing five wickets for 59 runs in thirty overs after tea, being already a man down after an injury to Ryan Harris. The Ashes are so close for Andrew Strauss that the smoke is in Ricky Ponting's eyes.
It will be a deserved victory. Coach Andy Flower described Adelaide as a 'perfect Test'. Yet his team has here almost improved on perfection, murdering Australia on the first day, and burying them the next two. They could retain the Ashes at Sydney by turning up for the toss and spending the next week at the beach.
There was no hint of later hecticness when play resumed, and Jonathan Trott continued on his own unassuming way. One straight drive from Hilfenhaus summed up Trott's whole game: simple, compact, unostentatious, effective. There remains a suspicion of vulnerability when the pace is on, but this has never been a pitch to test that conjecture. When he's in the mood, he just stays and stays and stays, his objective of long-term settlement somehow expressed in the repeated furrowing of his guard, where he might be intending to plant a row of beans.