I wrote this article immediately following Australia's 2005 "Ashes" defeat in England. A day or so later when I read it to a Writers Workshop group I challenged them to name "My famous personality." Rickie Ponting was the instant answer and no surprise at that, for the cricket circumstances fitted exactly. The gambling element, too, fitted with his "Punter" nickname, however, "My famous personality" was not Rickie Ponting.
Within months, my neighbour at the blackjack table was made captain of Australia. The team he now led was acknowledged as the best in the world and so he was untroubled in easing into his captaincy. The team's successes continued with nothing serious to trouble the new captain. However, one oversea's test series was likely to prove tougher than the rest and would probably require his judgement from time to time.
The first test match of that series was won with ridiculous ease to bring up Australia's 16th consecutive win. Forecasts were made of more sweeping victories. But matches still have to be won and so we came to the second test.
Australia scored 445 in the first innings which was 96 more than they had got in the first test, while their opponent's 171 was 5 less. In other words, Australia was 101 runs better off than when they defeated the other team by 10 wickets. Suddenly, the captain was faced with a dilemma, either to immediately bat on and play Australia's second innings, or, to enforce the follow-on? A decision was required but was it a difficult one? It seems not, for the team had proven experienced batsmen, and also the world's greatest-ever spin bowler, Shane Warne, who on a fifth-day pitch would more than likely take several wickets and destroy the opposition. Logic demanded Australia bat on. The best the opposition could hope for would be a remote chance of a draw but even this would still leave Australia one up with one test to play. If the opposition were sent in there was a possibility of them winning, regardless of how well-nigh impossible it might seem. Under no circumstances ought they be given any chance whatsoever, therefore, do not enforce the follow-on.
But back to my famous personality and his decision. Was it the obvious: to bat on? No! He decided to enforce the follow-on! He thus made it easier for the opposing team and harder for his own team. He had caused his own batsmen to bat on a crumbling pitch instead of having the other team facing Shane Warne on that same crumbling pitch. Needless to say, Australia was defeated, oddly enough by 171 runs, the precise amount their opponents had scored in their first innings.
One does not want to take anything away from the winning team for they played wonderfully well, even recovering from 3 for 115, but the impact of the Australian captain's decision must be considered as helping them. If things stopped there it would be alright but such results have an ongoing effect. Things had not really changed at grass roots but the mood of the moment predominated. Suddenly the opposing team was on a high and Australia on a low and seen as vulnerable, and was vulnerable. The score-line was one win each but as a drawn game was possible any time, this equality might continue to the finish. One more result, though, and it could mean Australia loses the series. What happened? Australia was defeated and lost the series 2-1.
When I thought back to that night playing blackjack, I wondered if the test series would have been lost if they had made me captain of Australia rather than the famous fellow sitting at my elbow.