Ricky Ponting has had a fractious match at the SCG. From a distance it is hard to avoid thinking that he has allowed a petty squabble with an immature opponent to affect his judgement. His confrontation with Harbhajan has taken a toll of his form as a batsman and tactician. He has lost focus. Always it is a mistake to play the man and not the ball. His captaincy has suffered too and his diplomatic skills have been found wanting. Far from fulfilling his role as a peacemaker, he has fanned the flames of hostility. It is to be hoped that soon normal service is resumed. Apart from anything else it has been a cracking match.
By letting Harbhajan Singh get under his skin, the Australian captain has played into the his hands. To make matters worse he has neither recognised or contained his irritation so that it has becoe self-destructive. No other explanation can be found for the sequence of events that has unfolded in Sydney, events that have shown all concerned in a poor light.
Doubtless Ponting's hackles were raised before the match had started by his rival's provocative but off the cuff remark about his form. To rub salt into the wound, the Tasmanian promptly lost his wicket to the turbanned tweaker in the worst possible circumstances, a rotten leg before decision from an umpire unable to detect a thick inside edge. The sight of Harbhajan celebrating by charging around the field like Courtney Walsh after taking the 10th Australian wicket in Adelaide did not help.
Usually Ponting manages to contain his disappointment at bad decisions till he has reached the supposed privacy of the rooms. Not this time. Instead he thumped an advertising board and then hurled his bat in full view of members sitting outside. Here was a man whose emotions were overheating. Team officials should have read the signs and offered the discreet counsel that even seasoned campaigners sometimes need.
The rest had an air of inevitability about it. Habhajan's partnership with Sachin Tendulkar began as a nuisance and rapidly became a threat to Australian interests. As the partnership gathered momentum so local hopes of securing a lead faded. Meanwhile Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson were worked to the bone, And still the Indians advanced. Australia looked weary and vulnerable. Ponting's grip was slipping.
Next came the outbreak of hostilities that has become such a talking point. Out of the blue, Harbhajan and Andrew Symonds were to be seen deep in aggravated conversation, the local firing remarks from the corner of his mouth , the visitor responding with something unpleasant. Before long Matthew Hayden was adding his pont of view. No one will be surprised by the identity of the combatants. They are the usual suspects, the muscular Queenslanders and the intemperate Sikh.
Just for a moment it seemed that tempers might cool. Just for a moment it seemed that cricket might prevail. Tendulkar tried to restore relations. He is a class act. The umpires indicated that they had not heard anything. Its about the only thing they have got right in the match. Although the umpiring lobby will argue the case, two more dreadful decisions were made yesterday. Meanwhile Harbhajan tried to withdraw a presumably insulting remark. Hereabouts it seemed that sense might prevail. But the Queenslanders were having none of it. Ponting and his vice-captain were no more amenable to an apology. In their view, Harbhajan had crossed the line. Meanwhile the game suffered.
Doubtless Ponting felt obliged to stand by his men. He might have considered telling them to watch their tongues beforehand. He must have known how it would look to outsiders, an Australian team throwing its weight around in a time of trouble. Not that Harbhajan is an innocent bystander. Kumble needs to take him in hand.. It is not possible to be involved in so many stoushes and always to be innocent. Of course the same applies to the powerful Australians.
But Ponting could have graciously accepted the withdrawal and advised his players to retain their dignity. Everything has a history. Although it was hardly his fault, he might have reminded them that Westerners did nothing to advance the cause of black captains in the West Indies, said nothing about the massacres of the Ndebele and Tamils in cricketing countries in the 1980's, and did not mention the deplorable conduct of England fieldsmen towards Arjuna Ranatunga in Adelaide all those years ago.
Afterwards Ponting could have informed his respected counterpart that his team had taken exception to certain remarks addressed to them by one of his young players. The Indian captain could then have raised his objections. Instead the noisy Australians sought their version of justice. Now the usual array of lawyers will be summoned and it will be one man's word against another. The aftermath was inevitable. Ponting groped at his first ball from Harbhajan and lamely lobbed to slip. His best moment came later as he emerged as runner for a stricken colleague. Until then he had been responding to events, not dictating them. It is not his usual practice. It has been his worst match as Australian captain.