Larrikin turned leader Ponting faces defining test

Australia captain has been one of his nation's greatest batsmen but third Ashes series defeat would stain his reputation for ever
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The Independent Online

Two men from Townsville have dominated Australian headlines for days. Ricky Ponting, the captain of Australia, is one of the few to have competed in terms of font size. How he might have wished that the duo, born in a place that stands obscurely if prettily for most of the time next to the Great Barrier Reef in northern Queensland, could help his present, seemingly doomed plight.

On balance, Julian Assange, the Wikileaks whistleblower, might be of more assistance if only he could reveal the secrets of the English cricket team from his London jail cell. But it is more probable – though not much more – that the Australian selectors will turn in desperation to Mitchell Johnson, the maddeningly contrary fast bowler, who lurches from the sublime to the ridiculous in less time than it takes to hack a top level American cable but has lately spent more time at the latter end of that scale.

A match after being dropped, Johnson is hotly tipped to be charged with no less a challenge than salvaging the Ashes, saving Ponting's career, his legacy and his place in the game. The defeat to England by an innings and 71 runs in the second Test has placed one of the greatest of all Australian cricketers in dire jeopardy of being unceremoniously turfed out of office.

Ponting would hardly deserve such a fate in view of an enduring and glittering international career that began 15 years ago this week. Regardless of his feats as a batsman – the best Australian since Don Bradman – he has still won 47 of his 75 games as captain, including an all-time record of 16 in a row between December 2005 and January 2008.

But the headlines have suggested only one outcome. "Pressure builds on Ponting." "Ricky Falls From Grace." "Little to salvage from Old Team." Social networking websites, which admittedly contain more than a fair share of crackpots, are running against him.

There have always been doubts about Ponting's tactical acumen which in the early days, starting in 2004, amounted to little more than throwing the ball to Glenn McGrath or Shane Warne and asking nicely if they could do the business. Some of his field settings in the Adelaide Test, despite the parlous nature of Australia's position in the match, were born of desperation and wonky computer analysis rather than inspiration and a gut feeling of what might just work. A 7-2 off side field to Kevin Pietersen at that point in proceedings was merely inviting the rejuvenated England No 4 to step across his stumps and smash the ball through mid-wicket, which he duly did.

But Ponting has in abundance what all the great captains say is the most crucial attribute. He is a leader. Michael Vaughan, the former England captain who brought the Ashes back to a grateful nation in 2005 after 16 years (and 42 days – we were all counting then) of waiting always makes the point that it was his leadership skills, the talent to convince the men in his charge that he was the best man to lead them, which counted as much as shoving in a short cover for Matthew Hayden. The thinking is that if cricketers trust the captain the short cover ploy might work in any case.

In the case of the Australia captain, he no longer has McGrath or Warne, or, in truth, any bowler fit enough to be mentioned in the same edition of Wisden. That is hardly their fault but it does not help that the nation appears to be a semi-permanent state of denial about the fact. It may explain why there is a semi-serious, semi-jocular campaign to restore Warne to the side at the age of 41.

It will not happen, not least because Warne is in London at present interviewing guests for his new chat show. But it is also the case that, fake tan, hair replacement, whitened teeth and all, he remains the best spin bowler at Australia's disposal.

The mood against Ponting seems irreversible at present and a third loss to the Poms after 2005 and 2009, this one on home soil, would do for him. The trouble for the selectors is that Ponting would almost certainly remain the best man for the job.

They have long groomed his successor, Michael Clarke, but he lacks Ponting's candour, gravitas and knowledge. If not Clarke, then who? There is no young man to whom the role could be entrusted in the hope that he would grow into it. Indeed, there is no young man making much of a statement to be picked in the side.

A section of the Australian public has never trusted Ponting partly because he was a bit of a lad in his youth, a larrikin from Launceston, Tasmania. It was three England tours ago that he was involved in a punch-up in a Sydney night club and as part of his punishment was sent for alcohol counselling.

But he has defied the old saw that you can take the boy out of Tassie but you cannot take Tassie out of the boy. He plays with total commitment and relentlessness on the field and is not afraid of being in the face of the umpires. Occasionally, you sense a snarl.

But in his role as ambassador for Australian cricket and adviser to young men off the field he is splendid. It is a point that too often goes unnoticed by his critics. Ponting always endeavours to be candid in his assessment of his own and his team's performances. It was why he said in the immediate aftermath of the Adelaide defeat: "It's certainly a great challenge for me. Don't worry about the winning of games, I've got to make some runs as well, it's as simple as that. To make nine runs in two innings out there on that wicket is nowhere near enough. My expectations are a lot higher than that."

And there might lie the insuperable challenge. He seems to be a batsman no longer at the height of his powers. In the recent two match series in India he made three scores above 70 but the most pertinent point was that he turned none of them into a century.

Since the end of the 2009 Ashes his batting average is 40, compared to a career figure of 55. But he is up and down now, his averages in the most recent series being 34, 63, 23, 24.5, 56 and in this Ashes 23.33 so far. Not good enough and he knows it.

Australia will not countenance his continuing in office if the Ashes are surrendered and it follows therefore that his Test career would be over. They do not do captains returning to the ranks, lurking in the corner of the dressing room. Of course, if England had that policy they might have sometimes struggled to raise a team.

It is to Ponting's credit that he has never once moaned about his comparative lack of resources compared to the salad days. The selectors have not covered themselves in glory but there are not the players around.

He still treasures as his grandest win as captain the series victory in South Africa two years ago with a team that looked to be full of no hopers. Indeed he becomes misty-eyed at the memory of seeing the triumph in the young men's eyes. The next few days may finally break him, unless one of the men from Townsville can come charging to the rescue.