James Lawton: Ponting has the steely resolve of a captain in search of redemption

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The Independent Online

It may be possible to take the devil out of Tasmania, and even make him the most successful captain in the history of Australian cricket, statistically speaking at least, but there is a limit to the transformation of Ricky Ponting, former brawler and ferocious betting man. You could see it in the hard cast of his eyes on the eve of an Ashes series potentially the most explosive since those sepia days of 1932 and '33 when the Nottinghamshire miner Harold Larwood was instructed to bowl at the head of Sir Donald Bradman.

When an Englishman pointed out that in a certain light you could still see the scar he received when Steve Harmison sent him to the deck at Lord's the summer before last, and the rival captain, Michael Vaughan, instructed his men not to give aid or comfort as he writhed in agony, Ponting smiled in a way that managed to be both exultant and cold.

He said that he loved that day of steamy action at Lord's - and he could not wait for it to be reconstructed on the fast, bumpy track of the Gabba tomorrow morning, when deliveries, as surely as the heat generated by the rising sun, would again fly around the heads of the batsmen.

There was a blaze in the dark eyes now. "It's Test cricket - it's Ashes cricket, isn't it? It's what it's all about. Yes I loved that day, going down to hostile bowling was only part of it. It's the reason you play Test cricket, to be involved in those sort of battles.

"I made no secret of it at the time. That was probably the most intense couple of hours - or day - probably we've all been part of. To be bowled out as we were, and then take those wickets late in the day was just brilliant Test match cricket. On Thursday both teams will be trying to repeat that sort of intensity, and we will certainly see if we can do it again.

"There's been a long build-up and it's all going to come out at the Gabba - a lot of emotion, a lot of skill." The English are making no secret of the prize they attach to Ponting's scalp. Since the wounds of the Ashes defeat and much questioning of his leadership once England recovered from the impact of Australian brilliance at Lord's, Ponting has grown exceedingly strong at the broken places, sweeping back to his position as the world's No 1 batsman and the conqueror in 11 of his past 12 Tests.

That makes him the most successful Australian captain of all time with 22 wins in 30 Tests, seven better than the formidable Ian Chappell, and with a 75 per cent winning record, two per cent ahead of the next best, the brilliantly relentless Steve Waugh. Such legends as Bradman and his successor, Lindsay Hassett, trail in Ponting's wake.

But the 31-year-old Ponting knows that these statistics will not be worth the yellowing paper they are written on if he cannot redeem defeat in England, when he became the first Australian captain to surrender the fabled urn in 20 years.

It means that the man who was once ruled out of the captaincy because he simply wasn't officer material - he once showed up at a press conference with a black eye after an affray in a Kings Cross pub - is simply playing for his place in the charmed corner of the great cricket museum at the Sydney Cricket Club. The England captain, Andrew Flintoff, and his most menacing assistant, Harmison, have noted the pressure on the man who is the cornerstone of the Australian effort and they will attack him from the first delivery he receives. It will no doubt be an assault of the same order as the one that engulfed him at Lord's.

Ponting knows this well enough as he touches the white scar on the right cheek of a face still remarkable boyish when you think of the pace he set in his early life - and the pressure he has absorbed in the past 14 months.

He says: "We've all looked at our own games pretty intensely over the last 14 months to work out the areas we were deficient in last time and of course that's what being professional is all about. We've all had the chance to change our games and understand how England are going to attack us. I'm exactly the same as everyone else. I'm not a huge one for looking back and analysing too much but I think I've got a pretty good idea of the way they are going to look to play against us - and how they are going to bowl at me. So it's about executing what you know on the day. I'm looking forward to it."

Ponting curtly deflects suggestions that his place as captain was in jeopardy after the Ashes debacle - and before he led his ageing team back to the No 1 ranking in the world. "No, it's not a worry," he says, "I'm not going to keep everyone happy all the time. Part of the job, any leadership in sport or business is going to attract some criticism along the way. Some of it may have been fair, some of it may have been a bit unfair, but that doesn't matter now. That series in England has gone and I like to think I'm a better player and captain now. I've lost three Test matches the whole time I've been in charge so things haven't gone too bad."

England thought Ponting was a broken man when he erupted so passionately after being run out at Trent Bride by one of a small army of substitutes, claiming vehemently a lack of sportsmanship by his opponents. Later, the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, stoked this particular fire when he reflected: "He completely blew his top. I did not think it at the time but looking back that might have been the moment when it became clear that England were going to win the Ashes."

Here this week Ponting's riposte was indirect but not without a little bite. He said Fletcher's choice of Geraint Jones over Chris Read behind the wicket, and the likely choice of Ashley Giles before the more talented Monty Panesar, was "pretty hard to read. You'd think they would be picking their best players. I'm sort of struggling to understand why Jones is playing after Read came in and kept well over a period of time. There's going to be some disappointed players around at changes like that but it's up to England to decide what to do."

He says it with a shrug. It is, after all, a little routine needling. The real Tasmanian devil's brew, he seems to be saying, can bubble on for another 24 hours.