James Lawton: Warne delivers unkindest cut of all to Ponting

If the close of every great sports event brings inevitable regrets, along with the glory, sometimes the pathos level runs especially high. This has surely been true at the Sydney Cricket Ground these last few days. Indeed, it has been easy to remember that the end of a fine, taut golf tournament amid the haunting beauty of Pebble Beach was once described as a "little death".

Imagine, then, the meaning of the end of another Ashes series for Ricky Ponting. Australia do not play another Test for six months and the chances of "Punter" still being around, pugnacious, hyperactive, oozing competitive zeal, were not exactly enhanced yesterday morning when Shane Warne entered the broadcasting booth wearing the clothes of Brutus.

Ostensibly he came to praise Michael Clarke, the embattled stand-in captain, but it was only if your ear was made of tin that you could miss the possibility of another purpose. Was it not also to put down his old team-mate, and successful rival for the captaincy, Ponting?

Warne could hardly have been more upbeat about the quality of Clarke's leadership on the day the lame-duck captain went off to hospital for surgery on his broken finger and abandoned his admittedly desperate role of overseeing the team while dressed in his working togs; a leader without portfolio if you ever saw one.

The world's greatest spin bowler said that Clarke had brought a new mood of relaxation to the Australian field, a remarkable feat indeed considering his neurotic demeanour at the batting crease the night before.

He had been quick to make a tension-breaking joke. He gave a bowler his brief, a stable field and let him get on with the job, a courtesy much appreciated by cricket's toiling classes, we were told. This was the way to lead a beleaguered, underperforming team. It displayed a little trust rather than an overweening belief that you were required to direct every phase of the operation in minute and endlessly fussy detail.

But if it was praise for Clarke it was also indeed a thrusting of the knife into Ponting. The virtues of Clarke, Warne made himself clear, were the vices of the man who now seems likely to be supplanted by a batsman of talent who is currently at sea when he walks to the wicket and whose disapproval ratings would scarcely be higher if he was the leading suspect in a serial murder hunt.

But then maybe Clarke will find some catharsis in his latest challenge. Perhaps the responsibility of leading the team will distract him from some of the worst of the pressure on his own game. Sometimes it happens that the burdens of captaincy enhance a batsman's game.

That certainly was the case yesterday when, for a while, Andrew Strauss seemed to be exultantly advancing beyond the historic achievement of merely retaining the Ashes. He was the run-a-ball master of all he surveyed. Then he was cut down in pursuit of a 20th Test century, Jonathan Trott, the immovable man of Melbourne, was directing an innocuous ball on to his own stumps, and Kevin Pietersen, having a few days earlier announced his genius role in every phase of English cricket's resurrection, played a fatal shot of unsurpassable brainlessness.

Strauss, like Hamlet, was staring again at the skull's head. Ponting was plucking the knife out of his ribs. It just made you wonder what Shakespeare would have made of the difference between Test cricket and the banality of most other forms of today's game.

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