Spirit of the game restored by Ponting

After controversy in Cardiff, Australia captain plays down umpires' poor decisions

The clock beneath Old Father Time showed 10 o'clock when another, increasingly haggard, patriarch assembled his team near the Nursery End. An hour before play, the stands remained largely empty, but an incipient sense of history already pervaded the ground.

Ricky Ponting stood in the circle, and urged his men closer. Their spirits were unmistakably high, and the captain's first remarks sent cheerful laughter through the ranks. Then there were solemn faces, and finally applause. As they broke up and headed towards the pavilion, it was not difficult to divine which of these reactions had been prompted by a suggestion that victory still lay within their grasp.

Four hours later, those ambitions were already long interred. A similar smattering of spectators lingered over their picnics. Suddenly, another great Australian cricketer appeared precisely where Ponting had sought to rally his men, and began to follow their footsteps to the pavilion. An excited murmur spread through the stragglers, and soon expanded into cheers and whistles. But this time there was a poignant timbre. Please, Shane, tell us you've got a set of whites in that bag.

For Ponting, the contrast between these tableaux perhaps contains a lesson for the coming days. The way he addresses his men, now, must somehow persuade them that the rough-shod passage of Andrew Flintoff across their hopes had been akin to the tread of the ploughboy – a necessary prelude in the sowing of new seeds for Australian cricket.

In public, certainly, he did not put a syllable wrong. On the podium he spoke generously of a deserved victory. Australia had been "outplayed". Invited to lament a macabre sequence of umpiring errors, he immediately dismissed them as "irrelevant". This won suitable applause from the crowd, who could apparently now afford a magnanimity of their own. Ponting wryly thanked them for their first civility in five days, and they again responded warmly.

For some reason, public and press alike have got it into their heads to treat Ponting as some kind of hypocritical boor. At Cardiff he made a perfectly proportionate response to a question about England's ham-fisted attempts at time-wasting as they clawed back a draw. He has since been sanctimoniously rebuked from every pulpit for his ineligibility to invoke the spirit of the game.

But none, surely, could cavil with his scrupulous decorum yesterday. He well knows that those umpiring errors – all perfectly understandable, but for the failure to refer the catch claimed by Andrew Strauss – were anything but "irrelevant".

True, he also knows that the better you bowl, the luckier you get. Sport, after all, has no better environment than cricket for l'esprit de l'escalier – the perfect rejoinder that only occurs to you too late, when you are halfway down the stairs. In a more familiar idiom, it is the game that allows every beaten side to torment itself with those "woulda, coulda, shoulda" moments. But the fact is that the loss of three of the first four Australian wickets on Sunday could strictly be attributed to official oversight; and that Australia none the less scored more than 400 runs in pursuit of a record giddily without precedent in the annals of the first-class game, never mind Test cricket.

The fourth of those wickets, of course, was Ponting's own. You could see how his obligations gnawed at the captain here. He knows that this team has to grow up around him, and quickly. There was a moment on Sunday when even his most vituperative critics might have shared a frisson of sympathy, after a ball from James Anderson spat into an index finger.

His features curdled as he sought not to betray any suffering, but eventually he removed himself a few paces and took off the glove. It was a moment of vivid solitude, even sadness. Uncharacteristic gaffes in the field had already disclosed the anxieties bequeathed by the loss of Warne and Glenn McGrath, who would surely have turned both matches so far.

This team must instead bear his own imprint, must become his own legacy. Hence, perhaps, his emphasis on dignity here – it is, after all, another name for self-respect. And in their fourth innings, his men had little else to play for. But perhaps what they learned, in the process, is that it will always be the same, for richer, for poorer. Even when Mitchell Johnson was last out, there was little sense that he was bowing to the inevitable. Instead he exuded a miserable certainty that things should have been different.

Starting, of course, with his own bowling. It is not as if Australia got themselves into this pickle without good reason. They have serious problems to redress at Edgbaston. Sometimes it will indeed seem a case of Ricky contra mundum. But here it fell to his heir, Michael Clarke, to show that the very toughest of stands can sometimes come in the guise of a pas seul. And the spirit of cricket is alive and well in this series. Michael Hussey did not betray even the vaguest dismay when given out to a ball he never touched; Paul Collingwood, equally, walked the previous afternoon when nobody asked him to do so.

Ponting is a natural target, because as one of the great batsmen in history he is so obviously the cornerstone. He is a middling captain (unlike his predecessor, Steve Waugh) and no paragon (just like Waugh) but that will not disqualify him as an inspiration to his men. He will have much for their ears in private, as they proceed to Northampton for a tour match, but even the pontiffs should acknowledge that, this time, Ponting was immaculate in public.

Too early to break out the champagne? What to expect from the remaining Tests

By Stephen Brenkley

*Edgbaston

All attention will now naturally turn to Birmingham. One point above all will give England hope: the deeds of 2005. It was there on a balmy Sunday morning that the home side drew level in the Ashes series, eventually ending an interminably dogged Australian rearguard action to win the match by two runs.

Both sides could do without the tension this time, though England would doubtless settle for the same result. It is certain that Australia will have to play positive cricket for they now have to win two of the remaining matches to be certain of retaining the Ashes.

Of the 12 Test matches between the countries in Birmingham, England have won five compared to Australia's three, not a record which is usual at many grounds. Apart from the win in 2005, there were also within living memory the improbable 1981 victory by 29 runs and the rather more emphatic innings victory in 1985.

Two impressive Australian victories during their pomp in 1993 and 2001 should not be airbrushed from history but nor should too much be made of them.

Edgbaston is a ground on which England like playing, where they can be sure of garnering some of their most fervent support and where there will be a result. It will be either 2-0 or 1-1.

Headingley

Australia have won eight matches in Leeds, England seven. The last match there in the 2001 series went England's way after a sporting declaration by the tourists' temporary captain, Adam Gilchrist, and the innings of a lifetime by Mark Butcher.

It has tended to go in cycles in Leeds. Australia won the first four victories on the ground and England did not have their first triumph until 1956, but from 1972 won four times in a row before Australia regained the ascendancy. On this basis it could be England's turn to begin another sequence.

There will be a result on a results pitch and it is to be hoped that the most unprepossessing Test ground in England is not a complete building site.



The Oval

Scene of so many stirring occasions in Ashes history: 1926, 1953, 1985, 2005 to name but four. It would be handy from England's viewpoint if the series was decided then and this was nothing more than a victory parade. Do not, however, count on that. And on the other hand there is a reasonable record of England winning there when the Ashes are at stake. They have won 15 times to Australia's six and three times out of the last six. If it gets as far as The Oval, England for the Ashes.

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