End of an era in Australian cricket
Ricky Ponting made sure of one thing with his reputation and his career at stake — if he was going to go down, he'd go down fighting.
Recriminations will follow four-time champion Australia's worst Cricket World Cup performance in two decades, with Ponting's captaincy not the only job on the line.
Every player, all the selectors, coaching staff and even the Cricket Australia executives will come under the microscope in a wide-ranging review being driven by the three captains who preceded Ponting.
Australia has already slumped to back-to-back Ashes series defeats to England and slipped well down the pecking order in the traditional form of the game. With a five-wicket loss to India on Thursday night, Australia surrendered the World Cup title it has held since 1999.
Ponting's 104 — his first ODI century in 13 months — was about the only highlight.
And it should hold him in good stead with the ex-captains if he decides to continue as captain.
Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh were all no-nonsense, hard-nosed captains who helped drag and then shape an Australian team from out of the doldrums in the mid-1980s to a squad which dominated world cricket for more than a decade.
It's unlikely that the selectors, with their own positions on the line, will make any rash decisions in the wake of Australia's quarterfinal exit to India and ahead of the limited-overs series in Bangladesh next month.
The aim of the review is to ensure Australian cricket doesn't sink to the depths that it hit in the wake of the schism following the advent of Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket.
Ponting didn't think his squad was so far off the international pace despite its inconsistent run in the World Cup, where it lost twice in six days to Pakistan and India after going 34 straight World Cup matches unbeaten.
"It's a bit premature to say it was the end of an era for Australian cricket," Ponting said. "It was a pretty good game.
"I didn't think we were far away from winning a game against a very good Indian team on their home soil. I thought we were very competitive.
"We've lost our last two games in the World Cup. I'm disappointed with that. I thought we were a better team than we probably showed … I think it's a bit too early to say it's the end of an era."
Chief selector Andrew Hilditch is reportedly in the firing line after some unsettled selections over the last two summers, when spin bowlers have been shuffled in and out of the team in a constant search for the next Shane Warne.
The selectors have tried and dispensed with too many slow bowlers in the last four years, with Jason Krezja a late selection for the World Cup after injuries elsewhere — he hadn't played a one-day international until this year and was thrown into the hot seat in the subcontinent, where batsmen are accustomed to playing higher-quality slow bowlers.
The rest of the bowling attack is in disarray, with none of the paceman consistently … consistent.
What's also missing is the line and length bowler in a mould of Glenn McGrath, who quit after the last World Cup as the leading paceman in test cricket, to apply pressure on batsmen from the other end while pacemen such as Mitchell Johnson are operating.
Shaun Tait has quit test cricket and, after conceding 17 runs in his wayward opening two-over spell, might consider retiring from ODIs as well. The intimidation tactics planned for Tait, Brett Lee and Mitchell Johnson to blast out the Indian top order backfired.
Brett Lee was the leading bowler for Australia in the tournament, the only survivor apart from Ponting of Australia's win over India in the 2003 final — the last time the two teams had met at the World Cup. The veteran paceman put everything into his last World Cup, giving Australia a glimmer of hope with four wickets in the loss in Sri Lanka last Saturday after the defending champions were bundled out for their lowest World Cup total since 1992.
He left the field with a bloody face against India, after being knocked by an awkward bounce as he tried to stop a boundary.
Lee returned with a bandage over his eye, but his first ball back in the dying overs was hit for six — essentially giving India all the confidence needed to polish off the required runs with two overs to spare.
The batsmen aren't safe, either. Michael Clarke is the captain in waiting, but didn't stamp any authority on the World Cup. Mike Hussey was recalled from injury as a late replacement in the squad, and never lived up to the form that made him the premier Australian batsman in the last Ashes series. Wicketkeeper Brad Haddin's place is safe after his consistent batting in the subcontinent and some decent work with the gloves.
Young allrounder Steve Smith was dropped for the quarter-final, to make way for David Hussey, after selectors had persevered with him in the group stage and during the last test series loss to England. He's set to develop into a decent batsman and reasonable leg-spinner, but needs time.
He collided with Ponting in a fielding mishap in the group stage, sparking an angry reaction from his captain. That was just an outward expression of the inner turmoil for Ponting, who managed only 102 runs in five innings coming into the quarter-final.
His mood on the field, his age and Australia's recent lack of success has heightened speculation that Ponting will quit or be fired — rumours he rejected out right earlier this week.
"Didn't I answer that question the other day?" he replied when asked if he'd played his last ODI for Australia.
"Nothing has changed."
His dogged 118-ball innings no doubt prolonged his stay as captain, but Ponting would have sacrificed a 30th ODI hundred for a victory.
"That's the game of cricket, isn't it," he said. "It didn't matter what I did, today was all about the team and how we played as a group of players.
"We came up short, we weren't good enough to win. India deserved the win."
Ponting said the bowling strategy was designed around Australia's best available resources.
"Those three guys are probably our best three one-day bowlers in any conditions," he said. "If you look at what we could have done differently as the tournament went on, we could have played John Hastings and not one of those quicks.
"But you couldn't leave Lee or Johnson out. We always had Tait in our side as an X-factor as he was in the last World Cup for us.
"There weren't a lot of alternatives for us, unfortunately. We were a bit hamstrung when we left Australia on who to pick as far as injuries were concerned."
Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspaper said Ponting's innings had made the selection situation even less clear.
"Ponting's career-saving century has done nothing but make what are already cloudy waters in Australian cricket even murkier," the mass-circulation tabloid reported Friday.
"The reality is Ponting did what most great batsmen will do if they are given enough chances. The pity is he can no longer do it as regularly as he once did."
Asked if he could be cast as the tragic hero for what is almost surely his last World Cup innings, Ponting was stuck for words.
"I honestly don't know how to answer that question," he said. "Am I the tragic hero?
"I don't feel like much of a hero at the moment."