Ponting meets Pietersen in heavyweight battle for glory

With Australia's captain showing signs that his once impregnable guard is down, the tourists will need their talisman to land a knockout blow, says James Lawton

The great writer of action Ernest Hemingway had a favourite theory. It was that some of his heroes of the boxing ring and the bullfight and the racetrack were, at least for one fight or corrida or race, strongest at those places inside them which had been broken.

There is no record of his attending a cricket match but if the opportunity was still available he would surely be happy enough to sit in the stands of The Gabba at the end of this week.

He would see on a steamy Queensland morning how at least two of an unfamiliar sport's most talented players dealt with those trials of nerve, and moments of truth, which come to even the most distinguished careers.

No doubt the aficionados of cricket would point him towards, supremely, Ricky Ponting and Kevin Pietersen.

Most compelling for the man who won a Nobel prize for his depiction of the determination and the agonies of The Old Man and the Sea, you have to guess, would be the circumstances of Ponting, the 35-year-old captain of Australia whose mostly Bradmanesque career has reached an extremely hard place indeed.

He is not exactly on the rocks – averaging in eight Test matches this year 46.66, a mark on which the vast majority of leading players would draw great pride. But then many see a growing vulnerability, especially to the short ball, which makes him England's chief target as they seek to entrench their heady status as favourites to win the Ashes – and avenge the 5-0 slaughter that started here four years ago.

Indeed, the former England captain Tony Greig stops short only at pinning a target between Ponting's eyes.

Greig is always an engaging, forthright figure and if sometimes his projections sail wide of the mark – he once suggested that an awesome West Indies team might reveal a tendency to grovel under pressure – they didn't, they eviscerated the England team he led on home soil – there is no doubt he has picked out maybe the most riveting drama of the latest edition of the historic collision.

Greig says England have to revive the furies of the Bodyline series that saw Harold Larwood attack the nerve of the world's greatest batsman, Bradman, in an all-out attempt to destroy the aura of the Australian captain.

It is an aura, born of brilliant batsmanship and so far unbreakable pugnacity, that has been enforced at The Gabba like few other places. When Nasser Hussain had his brainstorm eight years ago and inserted the Aussies, Ponting scored an imperious 123. Four years ago, when England came like nervous puppies rather than the hounds from hell who had won back the Ashes in 2005, Ponting was even more relentless, scoring 196.

Now, though, Greig isn't the only hard judge talking about the Tasmanian's lowered guard. Greig says, "He's not the great puller he used to be – he was one of the best ever – and he's been hit on the head a few times and been out playing the pull shot. If Ricky gets nailed a few times and gets out to the hook shot, it will lift the Englishmen no end."

No doubt this would be so but there is, of course, another scenario and Greig concedes it readily enough, saying, "Targeting Ponting does carry a risk. It could backfire on England because he's still the No 1 danger man."

With Australia dithering over what exactly constitutes their best XI, Ponting is indeed by some distance the biggest barrier to England captain Andrew Strauss's hopes of completing his so far superb job of helping to remake the English game he accepted under immense pressure when Pietersen's captaincy unravelled so spectacularly two years ago.

Strauss knows well enough the fuel driving his adversary as he comes into his last Ashes challenge.

For some of us Ponting was an immense figure when Australia surrendered the Ashes in 2009. He didn't whine when England took an edge at Lord's with the not insignificant help of some outrageous umpiring decisions – and in the wake of England's miraculous draw at Cardiff after being driven almost to oblivion, he barely sniffed at the time-wasting which came at the end of an otherwise riveting drama.

He fought to the last punch at The Oval and paid tribute to the force of Strauss's team. However, he knew well enough the implications of defeat and the pressure it would bring down on him in the coming battle.

It is about the nightmarish prospect of losing three Ashes series and certainly if some of the English reaction to the home squad's current difficulties of form carry a worrying whiff of hubris it is not difficult to understand their confidence, even if, given the cussed nature of their opponents, it is probably best left unsaid.

Mike Hussey, the immense Mr Cricket of 2006-7 is seen by some as half-crocked and half-gone in terms of his old self-belief and it is a suspicion that cannot be entirely dispelled by his life-giving century at the end of last week.

Mitchell Johnson, Australia's nearest thing to a bankable major league strike bowler, has had worrying bouts of his scattergun tendency. Some in Australia even worry that the departure of men like Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist represents the nation's last link with the old bone-deep conviction that they will always produce, as surely as the sun rises over the bush, a team to beat the world.

It gives the challenge of Ponting the widest possible margins, as though maybe he is fighting not only for his own legacy but the very identity of all of Australian cricket.

By comparison, Pietersen is merely battling for his own but, if there are huge differences between his approach and that of the Australian captain, sneers about his attitudes, and some would say his self-indulgences, what cannot be doubted is that the fate of both men in the next few weeks is so vital to the outcome of the series.

Nor can it be forgotten that both men were immense four years ago when England so desperately betrayed the best of themselves they had exhibited back home. Ponting was the master of almost every situation and it was plain that he had anticipated such dominance. He said he had no doubts even when Australia flew home nursing the wounds of defeat. "I had only to look into their faces on that flight to know that they would be ready to fight back."

Of the England team that could only be said, unequivocally, of Pietersen. His confidence was at optimum level then. His innings at Adelaide should have brought his team-mates back into the fight. Instead, they kept plunging off course.

Now Pietersen is in an entirely different situation. The Australians, we can be sure, will identify him, along with Alastair Cook and a Jimmy Anderson reflecting on his own desperate lack of success here on his last tour, as a suitable case for maximum attention.

It means that Pietersen has to display, more than ever before, something which Hemingway liked to describe as grace under pressure. Ponting's task is no less daunting. He has to ransack a phenomenal past and remake himself one last time.

On the success or failure of these endeavours we may well have the key to everything. Certainly, Ponting and Pietersen going hand-to-hand, with so much at stake, will at the very least be one of the more intriguing explorations of sport's broken places.

The hunch here? Ponting wins, 3-2.

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