Ponting's head cases can prove they are the better side

Australia must rain on England's parade. It is a task well within the scope of a powerful visiting side. Amid the mayhem of Birmingham, Ricky Ponting and his players had several chances to bury their opponents and did not take any of them. The Tasmanian's decision to bowl was a blunder caused by premature examination of the pitch and a stubborn refusal to change tack after Glenn McGrath's injury. Pitches are like portraits. It is unwise to look at them until they have been completed.

Australia's second opportunity came after their opponents had been dismissed on the opening day. England had rattled along with contemporary belligerence but their total was, like the Liberal Democrats, neither quite here nor there. Had Matthew Hayden and company put their heads down, the tourists could have ground their hosts into submission. Instead, the Australians batted like men whose brains were overheating.

Ponting's side did fight back admirably in England's second effort and as the final innings began, the match was within their grasp. Unfortunately, the Australians do not chase quite as well as the wild cats of Africa. England bowled well, until suffering some form of nervous disorder on the fourth morning, and Andrew Flintoff removed the visiting captain with the sort of delivery Australians, in their delicate way, are inclined to describe as a "ripsnorter." Some fine catches were also taken. But Adam Gilchrist played a rash stroke and Damien Martyn guided obligingly to midwicket.

Although England won the match, Australia also lost it. Unsettled from the outset, the visitors played a fraught game and it took doughty batting from a few hard heads and inspired work in the field to bring them back into the contest.

Presumably, Ponting and comrades have confronted and corrected the looseness of thought and deed that, as much as anything, caused their downfall in Birmingham. If his team plays well for five days, the match will be won. It sounds trite but it is significant because it indicates that Australia have the better side. Even now, only four of the home team could secure a place in the opposing line-up.

England have their own headaches. In the glow of victory, the inability of Ian Bell, Matthew Hoggard and Geraint Jones to fulfil expectations was easily forgotten. Moreover, it is all very well to play with vim and vigour in one match. Can the mood be recaptured? At Edgbaston the hosts swung from the hip. England did not have much to lose. Gloom was widespread. As the poet almost put it: "A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, I had not thought defeat at Lord's had undone so many." Now expectations are high again, and that creates pressure.

Provided the Australians have tightened their approach, they can be expected to restore their lead. Unless the pitch is dusty or injury strikes, there is no need to change the side. Shane Warne has bowled magnificently but another leg-spinner might not be effective. Ponting and his players will be better prepared this time. Australia also have several outstanding cricketers desperate to make their mark. England have a chance, but the visitors still have the depth needed to take the spoils.

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