Ponting's captaincy comes under question

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The Independent Online

The Australian team bus was still idling outside their hotel yesterday at the time the players would normally be doing their throw-downs on the outfield. They knew what we feared: the rain in Birmingham would make a warm-up redundant, and so it proved.

The optimists who had turned up specially for a Test Match Saturday milled around the beer pump, chewed on bacon rolls, played chaotic games of bat and ball, and some spent their time preventing the rain spoiling their fancy dress.

In the England dressing room there were card games and darts. Some of the players made for the gym, others for the nets while the coaches sat around contemplating a strategy for the rest of this truncated game.

Andy Flower, England's coach, stubbornly refuses to believe that this Third Test is all over bar the formal announcement of a draw tomorrow: "It's still up to us to bat well to see how far ahead we can get." As for the pitch under the covers, "there should be a little bit in it," he admitted. After all, it had changed between day one and day two.

Flower, slim in his England tracksuit and still speaking with a perceptible Zimbabwean accent, praised his skipper, Andrew Strauss ("in all respects very impressive") and paceman Graham Onions ("he always had a bit of a nip about his bowling").

He refused to speculate about Andrew Fintoff's fitness for next week's Leeds Test, although he did worry about the wear and tear on his talisman's knee tomorrow on Edgbaston's heavy, wet outfield.

Halfway through this Ashes series, England's coach appeared untroubled and confident, unlike his opponents, for whom speculation is becoming a way of life on this tour.

There was a hint of this at the Vodafone stand which attracted a decent crowd for the question-and- answer session with former paceman Jason Gillespie, who was Glenn McGrath's best partner.

A voice called out: "Should Ponting be fired?"

"Rubbish," roared Gillespie, and it was, on the face of it at least, a bizarre remark about an Australian cricketer who has won 38 of the 58 Tests in which he has captained his country. But Australia are unused to the experience of being bowled out for less than 300 in successive first innings in Ashes Tests, with minimal contributions from the skipper.

Ponting confessed to having a "bitter-sweet taste" in his mouth at close of play on Friday. He had passed Allan Border's record of 11,174 runs for Australia (his score now stands at 11,187), but he pleaded guilty to having failed to build on a decent start and leaving the middle order exposed to a devastating display of swing bowling from Jimmy Anderson and Onions.

After Australia's dismal Friday, Ponting spoke with unstinting admiration about Border, who moulded a group of young men into a formidable team between 1985 and 1993. Ponting described Border as typical of what it was to be an Australian player – "a really tough competitor, always playing the captain's innings when it was required".

For the first time, questions are being asked about Ponting's ability to replicate the Border model. He plays tough, and appears to have the respect of his largely untested team, but for most of his term as captain his ability to cope with adversity has not been tested: when there was danger, he could throw the ball to Shane Warne or McGrath.

Ponting was severely tested in 2005, but Australian cricket has tended to regard that result as a bit of a fluke. From this point on, Ponting will need to bequeath the essence of his strength to his team if Australia are not to lose successive Ashes series in England. Already, that's a tough call.

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