Since the destiny of the Ashes was decided it has been fascinating to observe the two captains. Andrew Strauss is the undisputed commander-in-chief of the England team and nothing that happens in Sydney this week will change that.
His position is unchallenged and unquestioned, his authority after 31 matches is complete. Strauss is the master of all he surveys and he can talk – though he has resisted it – about the challenges ahead for England knowing that everybody knows he will be part of them.
Ricky Ponting's is a different case. Nominally, he remains the captain of Australia, and though he is not playing in the fifth Test because of a broken finger, he is around the team dressing rooms with the proclaimed blessing of his stand-in, Michael Clarke. In practice before the match started he was seen advising all the batsmen, sometimes he appeared to be running the show and the intention is for him to be present for the whole match.
That Ponting cares passionately about the future of Australian cricket and the national side cannot be doubted and it is clear from his actions that he intends to be part of it. Yet none of this can dispel the notion that Ponting is becoming a monarch without power. His position is discussed each and every day and the more the players say they want him, the more pundits and former captains are wheeled out to say why he should not be there. The selectors and Cricket Australia continue to endorse Ponting as leader but there is an unspoken dilemma looming.
Were Australia to lose the Test series as well as the Ashes, it would add fuel to the arguments of those, like the great former captain Ian Chappell, who say the rebuilding must begin now and with a different leader. "Like a politician intoxicated by power," Chappell wrote in his Sydney Sunday Telegraph column yesterday, "Ponting has talked about extending his leadership maybe as far as the 2013 Ashes series. This is unrealistic as captains have a use-by date. Also, the future captain needs to be installed at a time that's right for his career, rather than at the whim of the incumbent."
But if Australia somehow prevail in the fifth Test and draw the series 2-2, then Clarke will be the man who engineered the victory on the field, not Ponting from the changing room. The movement to move on will gain greater propulsion. Clarke could hardly have been more magnanimous in his assessment of Ponting before the Test match began – glad to have him around, a man who had taught him so much, still the captain, and so on – but he could hardly have said any differently. And if he really did not want to say any differently, then that might tell something about Clarke's credentials as a long-term captain.
It was the oddest sensation, that Ponting had become a captain with too much power and yet seems to have no power at all for he is now reliant on others for it. This is a huge conundrum for Australian cricket, which is in a mess.
By the normal standards applied to sport, Ponting should be replaced. It should not have happened because of a broken finger but that is the nature of the thing. He is 36, he has been a hugely successful captain for nearly seven years and 77 Test matches, but he has presided over the loss of three Ashes-losing sides. The question keeps being asked, if not Ponting then who? Clarke? Apart from his terrible form, nobody truly seems to think so for long – no matter how he manages in Sydney. Ponting may have to hang on after all.
But there is always somebody. England have come to know that – painfully sometimes. In the Nineties, Michael Atherton was probably allowed to be leader for too long: 52 matches, only 13 wins, but there never seemed to be anybody else. Eventually he was replaced by Alec Stewart. That did not work, partly because Stewart was a wicketkeeper, partly because he did not have the temperament. They found Nasser Hussain almost by accident, a gamble that paid resounding dividends, England's best captain for a generation.
After that, Michael Vaughan fitted seamlessly into the chair and, because of his natural leadership skills and Hussain's groundwork, was triumphant. But post-injury, Vaughan hung around too long. The selectors, although they would not admit it, got into a pickle, first with Andrew Flintoff, then with Kevin Pietersen.
By the time Strauss turned up he was the only option, though selectors like to make us think – in view of his predictable accomplishment – that it was their masterstroke. It was no such thing. They got lucky. Six months earlier, the same selectors assured us that Kevin Pietersen would take the team to fresh horizons.
Strauss and Ponting are both admirable men but cricket captaincy can make fools of all. In the first days of the new year, Strauss may have learnt something from Ponting about his future: that some time there is a time to go.