Spirit of 2005 back to haunt Ponting

What a terrible day for the Australian captain, says Peter Roebuck at Lord's

On several occasions at Lord's cricket has kicked Ricky Ponting in the shins whereupon a thunderous aspect has come over him. It is the look of a man howling against the fates.

It is the look of a man let down by his comrades and poorly served by the game. His team's profligate bowling on the opening day took a toll, and the overthrows and byes given away did not exactly lighten his spirit Then came his own contentious dismissal, and the subsequent revelation, brilliantly made by David Lloyd in these pages, that under rule 3.2.3 the third umpire was not merely allowed but obliged to overturn Rudi Koertzen's howler. No wonder Ponting glared as the white coat raised his finger.

Nor did things improve for the Tasmanian on an abysmal second day. Thick cloud had settled over Lord's and the ball swung around. Sporadic rain had the same effect on the pitch as cold water upon a sleeping teenager. Batting was not quite the contemporary cakewalk. It had been a good toss to win. In these circumstances, Australia's captain was entitled to expect his batsmen to batten down the hatches until the storm had passed. Instead, they displayed the sort of abandon described by F Scott Fitzgerald as doom descended on his world. A quintet of Australians lost their wickets to poor hook shots. Two is a surfeit, five an indulgence. By stumps the visitors were in a quagmire.

If Ponting expected better luck in the third instalment he was sorely disappointed. For a start the day dawned bright and cheerful. Batting was going to be relatively easy. Australia's best chance had been dashed. The recipe was simple. Andrew Strauss enforces the follow-on, Australia rally, England chase 180 on the fifth day and fall in a heap. The sun meant the hosts were bound to bat again. And so it proved.

Australia's hope of a dramatic breakthrough lasted as long as Mitchell Johnson's opening over. His ropey spell puts his position in peril. The Queenslander's collapse must have eaten into his leader's soul. To a considerable extent, a captain depends on his bowlers. Ponting is desperate to avoid the ignominy of leading his country on two unsuccessful Ashes missions. It was as unthinkable as an afternoon spent listening to Kylie Minogue.

To that end he relied on his dangerman to disrupt England's batting. Instead he was having to nurse him with no improvement in sight. That the other two pacemen commanded respect was small consolation. Not until a much derided spinner was thrown the ball did wickets start to fall as Alastair Cook again played across a straight ball and Andrew Strauss drove to slip. Hereabouts the Australians were not exactly cock-a-hoop but they had at least caused the hosts to break stride. If only Ravi Bopara and Kevin Pietersen could be swiftly dispatched.

Meanwhile, Ponting had reason to be pleased with himself. His selection of Nathan Hauritz had been justified and his bowling changes had worked. The introduction of the spinner had brought two wickets and his withdrawal had put Pietersen under immediate pressure. Perhaps the world seemed a slightly better place.

It did not last. Pietersen duly played across the deserving Ben Hilfenhaus and all Australia roared. Umpire Billy Doctrove, though, was alert to an inside edge and shook his head. But the batsman's mind was as scrambled as his game and he advanced yards down the pitch in pursuit of some mirage. Predictably, the ball rebounded to Ponting at wide slip. Three stumps to aim at, time on his side and a feared batsman at his mercy. It was a shoo-in for any competent fieldsman, let alone a lynx-eyed hustler from Mowbray, a hard boiled suburb of Launceston. Alas his throw missed. Pietersen regained his ground. It never rains but it pours.

Five balls later even worse befell the visiting captain as Bopara edged a lifter to second slip. It was a sitter. Surprised by the slowness of the opportunity, Ponting kept his fingers upwards and the ball eluded his grasp. One of the best and most versatile fieldsmen ever to play the game had erred twice in two minutes. Cricket plays tricks with the mind. Peter Siddle looked bereft. Ponting went down on his haunches and buried his head in his hands. As a rule, he is not the sort to regret. But this was different. He knew his side were in trouble, he could feel the match slipping away.

Nor was even that the end of his agony. Just before tea, Hauritz claimed a low catch at mid-on as Bopara spooned a pull. To these eyes the ball was cleanly taken.

Standing 10 yards away, Koertzen declined to make a decision. The third umpire allowed England's first drop to continue his innings. For years Ponting has been trying to persuade players to accept a fielder's word.

Who runs our game? England's victorious women cricketers were not able to watch because the MCC had not considered them worthy of a ticket.

Every Ashes series is to some extent a struggle between the captains. Ponting had prevailed in Cardiff only to be taken to task by the grandstanders over mild remarks about time wasting. It was less than he deserved. Haunted by the ghosts of 2005 he was desperately trying to hold his team together. Suddenly his captaincy was under threat. Meanwhile Strauss could sit on his balcony wondering whether to set the Australians 500, or 600.

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