Captains face battle to see who can hold nerve longest

As the teams regroup after Lord's, Strauss and Ponting Ashes will probably be won by whichever leader stands tallest in the face of the coming ordeal, writes Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

For the captains in this enthralling Ashes campaign, nothing is about to get easier. In England, Ricky Ponting received a round of applause only when his team had lost. In Australia, Andrew Strauss is being vilified for claiming a catch that never was.

In the days and weeks ahead, their teams will come increasingly to rely on them, on the calls they make, on the leadership they offer and on the comfort they give. For the men at the centre of the storm, it is the most severe test of their sporting careers, perhaps of their whole lives.

Ponting has been here before, Strauss had given up hope of ever getting here. They suspected what this series would entail but they may have been surprised by the dramatic course that it has already taken, ensuring that they will be at centre stage in every waking moment – and there will be precious few sleeping ones from hereon in.

The rigours of captaincy are huge as Ponting's predecessor as Australia's leader, Steve Waugh, wrote in his magnum opus Out of My Comfort Zone: "Captaincy seemed to soak up my spare time like a sponge. More often than not I found myself short of a decent warm-up and with little or no time to do what I need to do to switch on. Strange as it may seem the toss of a coin sometimes gave me a mild anxiety attack." And this was the man who invented mental disintegration.

The die was cast for Ponting in Cardiff by something he said, and for Strauss at Lord's by something he did. In each others' countries for the next few weeks and, if precedent is anything to go by, maybe for the rest of their lives, they have been cast as pantomime villains.

It may be harder for Ponting to deal with this issue between now and late August simply because he is away from home and the Poms are delighted to see him squirm. Poor Ricky initially won the part as the guy they love to boo and hiss at Trent Bridge in 2005, when he exploded after being run out by England's substitute fielder, Gary Pratt. There was always the certainty that they wanted something else in order to give Ponting a hard time. He supplied what they were looking for after the first Test in Cardiff.

Until it was raised by a reporter, Ponting never mentioned England's blatant but understandable gamesmanship by which they sought to slow down the game in the taut, final overs. But, when asked, he said something along the lines of England could do what they wanted but Australia would abide by the spirit of cricket.

Considering that an hour earlier he had charged in the general direction of the umpire after claiming a catch at silly point that was not out on the grounds that the ball had got nowhere near the bat, he was leaving himself open to charges of hypocrisy and sanctimony. But it is important to remember two things: the Australians have always thought the Poms a despicable, duplicitous mob since the invention of Bodyline 77 years ago, and the Poms can never quite bring themselves to admit that they are pretty awful.

Thus, was Ricky's tour of 2009 moulded. His every grimace (and there were a few) at Lord's simply enhanced his status as Captain Grumpy, although he is the most approachable and reasonable of chaps. Until recently when the Aussies began to lose a little, he was, statistically, the most successful of all their captains. But the next few weeks will decide his fate and he knows it.

Having lost the Ashes in 2005, it is unthinkable that his selectors would allow him to lose them twice and keep the job. That can only deepen a strain that is already profound. Ponting has a plethora of former captains telling him what a bad skipper he is.

It is true that he can sometimes be inflexible and lack instinct but it is also true that all great captains have had great players, and he lacks them in the bowling department at present. He was decently pragmatic about his treatment by England fans after Monday's defeat and all Andy Flower, England's team director, would say yesterday was: "I'm sure he's big enough to take it."

As for Strauss, a man more easily able to contain his grouchiness and his feelings, and whose batting appears to prosper with captaincy, he is probably lucky he is not in Australia to hear what they have to say. Regardless of his tactical acumen (little of which they think he has) he stands accused not only of gamesmanship in Cardiff but of sharp practice at Lord's by claiming an illicit slip catch off the edge of Phillip Hughes' bat in the second innings. The debate about whether it hit the ground – and therefore Strauss' credentials as a cad – will rage through the ages.

Everybody who knows Strauss says what an upright citizen he is and Flower indeed averred: "He's one of the more honest men I've ever known in my time. He believed he caught that catch cleanly and appealed."

This is not washing at all well with Australians who think that English public schoolboys are a pretty unsavoury bunch and have thought so since Douglas Jardine, he of Bodyline, beat them at what the Poms would say was their own game.

The indications are there in their faces and their eyes. Neither Ponting nor Strauss can hide the tiredness or the tautness. Whoever can make the calmest, most pragmatic decisions in those circumstances, and whoever gets lucky, will win the Ashes.

Strauss v Ponting: How the two captains match up

Andrew Strauss

Matches: 14

Won: 6 (43 per cent)

Drew: 7

Lost: 1

Series won: 2

Series lost: 1

Batting average: 44.53

Batting average when captain: 58.17

While the talents of Pietersen and Flintoff were crushed by the burden of leadership, Strauss has taken the captaincy in his stride, with his batting average noticeably on the increase.

Ricky Ponting

Matches: 58

Won: 38 (66 per cent)

Drew: 10

Lost: 10

Series won: 13

Series lost: 2

Batting average: 56.31

Batting average when captain: 56.69

Ponting came into the Ashes series under a degree of pressure, which will have increased following his failure to press home an Australian victory at Cardiff and the defeat at Lord's.