Strauss overcomes shaky start to prove a match for Ponting

But jury still out on tactical nous of England captain as match hangs in the balance
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The Independent Online

Ricky Ponting held all the cards a week ago when the Ashes caravan rolled out of Wales and headed for London. Well, all apart from the one saying, "Australia 1-0 up", of course. But now it is Andrew Strauss who must return here today believing he can park his bottom in the banker's seat.

Apart from England's late show of defiance in Cardiff, Strauss had little to encourage him going into the second Test. His contribution to two inadequate batting performances amounted to 47 runs, whereas Ponting walked away with the man-of-the-match award after a majestic innings of 150.

"As a captain, you don't want to be scratching around for runs because it adds more pressure when you don't need it," admitted Strauss. And the Aussies like nothing better, cricket-wise, than sticking the boot in when an opposition leader is on the ground and winded. Their chance for some serious Pom-bashing came on the opening morning at Lord's. Ponting would have much preferred to win the toss and bat first, but calling "heads", rather than "tails", brought one consolation prize: an opportunity to get stuck into Strauss again. Yet, from the moment he clipped his 11th ball, from Mitchell Johnson, for a couple, England's captain has been calling most of the shots.

During a first innings of 161, Strauss reached 5,000 Test runs – a landmark which he brushed aside with typical modesty by saying: "That seems like you are just out of nappies when you look at someone like Ricky Ponting with 11,000." And in terms of miles on the leadership clock, the pair are poles apart, too. Of course, it might have been a bit different by now if England had put Strauss in charge of the 2006-07 Ashes tour when Michael Vaughan was fighting his latest knee injury (it might have been all over for him long ago, come to think of it). But they followed their heart, rather than their head, and granted Andrew Flintoff the privilege of presiding over a 5-0 defeat.

Strauss, who had filled in on a part-time basis before that, was forced to wait until January this year to be given the job permanently – and even then it needed Kevin Pietersen to fall out with now former coach Peter Moores to create a vacancy.

But now, at the age of 32, there seems no reason why he should not enjoy a long reign.

An Ashes-series triumph would help, mind you, and Strauss must have seen enough evidence here to believe that is perfectly possible this summer.

Apart from anything else, England have enjoyed the rub of the green, and that should never be underestimated when it comes to working out winners and losers.

Whereas Strauss survived a couple of chances during his mighty first innings, Ponting was given out caught at slip after failing to put bat on ball. And when Australia set off in pursuit of a 522-run victory target, three of their first four batsmen could argue they were undone as much by umpires Rudi Koertzen and Billy Doctrove as Flintoff and Graeme Swann.

So much for the Aussie love affair with Lord's. Luck tends to even itself out over the course of a Test series, though, so Strauss cannot count on good fortune continuing to go England's way.

But, on the evidence of nine days' cricket out of a possible 25, the hosts should be able to depend on their captain matching Australia's wily old campaigner when it comes to resolve and nerves of steel.

With cricket being a game that encourages every shade of opinion under the sun, people will never tire of debating Strauss's decision not to enforce the follow-on. And the timing of yesterday's declaration, without giving himself the extra insurance of another 30 runs, was starting to generate plenty of hot air as the Aussies stabilised and then started dreaming of creating an outrageous piece of history.

As a tactician, the jury is still out in the case of Andrew John Strauss. It must be because he has not been doing the job long enough. But as a character he has so far shown himself to be rock solid in the burning heat of an Ashes series.