When asked whether England will ever regain the Ashes, Ian Chappell routinely replies, half-mockingly: ‘Not in my lifetime.’ He usually adds: ‘At least not until Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have gone.’ Through an outrageous piece of misfortune for McGrath and a misjudgment at the toss by Ricky Ponting, we had a glimpse of the future on the first day.
With McGrath missing and Warne nullified by a plum pitch, England blasted away merrily at five runs an over. Ponting’s decision to insert England on an old-fashioned Edgbaston featherbed was the more significant of these two happy (from England’s perspective) events. McGrath was certainly missed and, in partnership with Warne, would have helped stem the run rate. Not since pre-McGrath days (August 1993) have England taken Australia for more than 350 runs on the opening day of a Test match. But even he would have struggled to recreate the cutting edge he had at Lord’s in these benign conditions.
All captains make mistakes but some are bigger than others. This one was a clanger and will probably go down in folklore; the ghosts of Ashes captains past who inserted and were damned are ready to welcome Ponting to their midst. Nasser Hussain has been wandering around the commentary box at Edgbaston with a peculiar grin on his face.
Ponting is no fool. He is an outstanding cricketer of great talent; a brave and honest man and one of the most successful captains in Australia’s history. But regardless of what happens in the rest of this match, Australia missed an opportunity to bury England and the series by batting first, making a big score and then unleashing Warne on a wearing pitch. What demons, then, infiltrated his thinking on the first morning?
His decision to bowl first must have been partly based on too much information, too early. From Monday onwards, all the talk at Edgbaston was of the pitch and how wet and unprepared it was because of the tornado the week before. England added to the doubts about the surface by calling up Paul Collingwood. Had Ponting seen the pitch for the first time on Thursday morning there is little doubt that he would have batted first. I made a similar mistake in Melbourne in 1995 when I inserted on the basis of making a decision the day before. After that, I never looked at a pitch closely until the morning of a game – except at Sabina Park before the abandoned Test match of 1998.
The statistics of recent Edgbaston Tests, suggesting an advantage to the team fielding first, would also have been on his mind. Computer analysis and historical reference are tools that every modern captain uses, but they need to be used flexibly. No doubt, too, there was the residue of the mind-set instilled into the Australians by Steve Waugh – when you have a side down, keep them down: Waugh would no doubt have wanted to put England’s batsmen straight back under pressure after their twin failures at Lord’s. Maybe Ponting felt the same way.
Ponting had probably decided the day before to bowl and may even have told his team of the plan. Once McGrath had been ruled out he was then faced with a dilemma. Does he change his mind on the basis that his pace attack is weakened and his main threat is now Warne? By doing so does that send out a bad signal to McGrath’s replacement, Michael Kasprowicz? Ponting decided to show faith in his rejigged pace attack, which has not been rewarded.
A captain must trust his instincts and hope that he gets more right than wrong, which Ponting clearly has over the last couple of years. But the unravelling of events, the complete lack of assistance for his bowlers on the first day, and the increasing help for the spinners as the match wears on, is enough to suggest that on this occasion he was badly wrong. The most damning effect was that it allowed England’s batsmen to play Warne in the best possible conditions on day one and so help lift the psychological stranglehold that he had created at Lord’s.
It only takes a moment to utter the words ‘we’ll bowl’, but their effect could be far more long-lasting before this series is done. Sunday Telegraph, 7 August 2005