Australian angle: Ponting's problems close to a lost cause

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The Independent Online

Over the years Headingley has rarely witnessed the handing over of the Ashes. Admittedly, the Test normally takes place earlier in the season, when the locals are not so grumpy and the stands have been completed. Now this mercurial ground is poised to celebrate as the hosts reclaim the urn. Despite their fightback in Birmingham, Australia look ripe for the plucking.

However he juggles his cards, Ricky Ponting will still have a makeshift opening pair, a wounded middle order and an unreliable attack. Whatever happens to Andrew Flintoff, England will still have the more dangerous pacemen, and Ryan Sidebottom can widen that gap. The series lies at England's mercy.

Admittedly, the visiting batsmen are finding form and the home middle order is a rickety as an ageing ladder. But Andrew Strauss's mob has the momentum. Recently the Australians were delighted to avoid defeat. Not that England have nothing to worry about. All sorts of issues have cropped up in the last few days – Ashley Giles' naked conflict of interest and the promotion of yet another foreign-born player, one of 119 currently on county books. What the heck are all these coaches and clipboards and money producing? Only Durham are up to scratch. Sack the lot and ask the Spaniards, Swedes, South Korean women and local cyclists and oarsmen how they do it. English cricket remains a cosy little club. Flintoff's knee and crowds dominate debate.

Not that England are alone in such obsessions. Ricky Ponting was asked almost as many questions about Brett Lee as Strauss was about Flintoff, and that is going some. And yet there is a crucial difference between the pair. Flintoff has been playing and Lee has been on the sidelines. Both outcomes were predictable. For all his hobbling and gestures, the bluff Lancastrian has bowled flat out and scored runs. Meanwhile, the Australian has not struck a blow in anger. Their fates have been the fates of their teams.

And, to think, these were the very cricketers involved in the defining moment of the previous Ashes series played on English soil. Now they both appear to be on their way out, one of them willingly, the other reluctantly. The Englishman is 10 days of cricket away from leaving this particular scene and concentrating on one-day matches, an arrangement that is bound to lower his profile, fill his bank account and please his knees. The Australian will have to be dragged away from Test cricket. Flintoff has come to terms with his future, Lee is fighting it to the bitter end.

The Australian bowler is much the less likely to play in Leeds than the all-rounder. Simply, he has not proved his fitness and anyhow is less sanguine about his prospects in private than public. His career hangs by a thread. If he does not play at The Oval it is going to be a long haul back as younger men rise. Lee cannot complain because he has had a good run. In the past 18 months, though, he has been effective in only one Test match, ripping the Kiwis apart with one scything spell last winter. Otherwise he has been injured or ignored or out of sorts. His selection for the tour was a gamble taken on the basis of a few performances in limited-overs matches. Of course, the same applies to Stuart Clark, whose supposedly lost nip has become the main concern.

It's been a long time since Australia were so uncertain about their line up. All 16 tourists were under consideration for today's Test. Ponting has plenty of headaches. As a rule, he prefers to include a spinner but this match might rattle along, in which case Nathan Hauritz has no role to play. The Australian captain is not convinced by his veterans while Shane Watson is delivering dibbly-dobblers. To make matters worse, his only young batsman has lost his way, his vice-captain is sore and his main batsman has been shouldering arms to straight deliveries. And it is hard to believe his wicketkeeper has fully recovered from his broken digit. It's enough to sap the strength of any man. Nor is it much of a way to begin a Test match his team needs to win. Rumours suggest that the tourists will keep the same team but common sense insists that changes are needed in the bowling, with a four-pronged pace attack as Australia go for the quick kill. Clark should play, and maybe Andrew McDonald as well.

Although Englishmen (and assorted guests) continue to fret, the home side has much less on its plate. All of England's options are good. Every player is on song, and all except Flintoff seem to be fit. Sidebottom is a terrific bowler, stump to stump, making the batsmen play. His return also confirms that strong cricketing families can survive even the weakest system. County cricket currently has more sons than The Jacksons. For his part Jonathan Trott has much to commend him and Stuart Broad appeared to be, in the Antipodean phrase, hitting his straps in Birmingham. The spinner is the main concern. Graeme Swann seems to be taking big wickets every five minutes but the statisticians insist that he averages 50-plus with the ball and strikes less often than the nurses.

Everything points towards a home victory.

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