England v Australia, 2nd npower Test, Lord's, 3rd day July 18, 2009

Strain shows on Ponting

The Australia captain missed a run out, dropped a catch and has much to ponder

In a week Ricky Ponting has gone from a captain in charge to an under-siege leader whose control is slipping. A match that began with Spirit of Cricket issues surrounding Ponting's response to the draw in Cardiff has quickly resulted in Australia losing theirs. If they save this match - they enter the fourth day 521 behind - it will be as stunning as England's effort in the opening Test.

Last Sunday Ponting was expecting his team to roar to victory but as James Anderson and Monty Panesar held on the skipper showed his first grumpy signs, walking towards the umpire to question a decision and arguing, with justification, about England's support staff wasting time. Off the field he has been calm, friendly and approachable, but on it his mood can change like the English weather. This is a man who grew up winning, making hundreds and being feted. Life in his 30s has become more challenging and significantly less successful.

Despite playing down, by his standards, the time wasting at Sophia Gardens, it became a major issue in between Tests and since then whenever he has been involved in anything remotely controversial he has been jeered by the Lord's crowd. No Shane Warne or Glenn McGrath leave Ponting as the main target. He is the only relic from the teams that dominated England before 2005, making him the most recognisable Australian player to local supporters. He is also the most important member of the side, setting the strategies, the example and the run-scoring lead. During this match he has not yet succeeded in any role.

Australia were already falling apart when Ponting experienced six deliveries that showed his mind was losing not only its ruthlessness, but also its focus. The day before he was stunned to be given out to a ball he didn't hit - it should have been lbw instead, but that didn't ease Ponting's disgust - and after the third umpire gave him out he stood still for moment, opened his mouth and stared at Rudi Koertzen, the on-field official. As he walked to the pavilion, turning his head back occasionally, he was booed by the usually polite Lord's crowd. That was not abnormal behaviour from the leader, but the two mistakes in the field were distinctly un-Ponting.

Kevin Pietersen was disorientated after an inswinger from Ben Hilfenhaus resulted in an lbw appeal and was more interested in the umpire's decision than where the ball had gone as he stumbled around the pitch. It had gone to Ponting at second slip: all the wickets were visible, Pietersen was metres from safety and Ponting's arm is one of the deadliest in the game. He missed.

Standing at the same spot in the following over, Ponting spilled what should have been a comfortable catch off a Ravi Bopara push. The bowler Peter Siddle was so stunned he bent over and grabbed his head in both hands. It's not the reaction a young fast man usually displays when his captain drops one.

Ponting's fingers were facing towards the sky as he crouched down for the take when they needed to be pointing at the ground. A fielder of Ponting's standard might miss one of those chances in a year at practice, but he did it twice in a couple of minutes. His side's distress has changed the way he thinks. It used to be that if a bowler was struggling Ponting could throw the ball to the next man and wait for the results. Now he can't even trust himself.

These errors occurred after he brought off Nathan Hauritz, who had removed both openers in two overs after lunch and did not bowl again until the third session, when he picked up Bopara. The effective swing of Hilfenhaus was used until tea instead, achieving lots of close calls, including two French cuts from Pietersen, but no breakthroughs. Ponting's hunch hadn't work. Arms were waved at fielders and his fingers spent a lot of time rubbing his chin without the appropriate inspiration.

In the over before tea Ponting was frustrated again, initiating a conversation with Pietersen in the aftermath of a debatable catch by Hauritz at mid-on. With hands in pockets, Ponting walked up to the batsman via the umpire Koetzen. He swears his players don't claim catches unless they are out, but his calls for a gentleman's agreement on these types of rulings have been rejected by all opposing captains. They don't trust the Australians either.

In five innings at Lord's Ponting has 72 runs and he started this game hoping to continue Australia's streak of not losing at the home of cricket since 1934. Four years ago he was in charge when his team handed back the urn after 16 years. England supporters have got it wrong. They should be cheering Ponting's Ashes contributions, not booing them.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo