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For most of Ricky Ponting's life a tour of England was the highlight for an Australian player. The experience has not been as enjoyable under his leadership
Peter English at The Oval
August 22, 2009
After his experiences in south London over the past four years any cricket arena named after Australia's greatest modern batsman will not be called the Ricky Ponting Oval. It will be a field or a ground. Anything to avoid a reminder of this place.
The Oval has been horrible to Ponting and sometime over the next two days he will almost certainly watch an England captain lift the urn here for a second time. Four years ago the result was expected, but this time it comes as a shock. Ponting has had a few in this game, including split lips from a Matt Prior drive which struck him before he could flinch at silly point. First the crowd cheered at impact, then squirmed as Ponting spat out blood. For him, it was supposed to be England with the wounds.
Pain from that blow will last a couple of days - it didn't stop him chewing gum in the field - but his place in Australia's captaincy ranks won't be forgotten quickly. The only thing stopping him from becoming the second Australian captain to lose two series in England is his team batting for two days and one hour. Billy Murdoch, the unfortunate first, was in charge in the late 1800s. Losing one series was awful for Ponting and giving up two would send anyone else away from the job. Unless Ponting, a batting great in any era, decides he wants to go, nobody will make him.
Australia were meant to dominate this game after their three-day raid in Leeds and achieve redemption for 2005. Since Stuart Broad rumbled through the batsmen on Friday, Australia have been rattled. There was a brief rally before stumps on day two when they took three wickets, but there was no follow-up on the third morning.
Ponting, showing the defensive approach which opens his captaincy to criticism, started with an in-and-out field, placing a couple or more fielders on the boundary while keeping in some catching men. He didn't want England getting away quickly, so he gave them singles instead, easing the pressure on Andrew Strauss and Jonathan Trott and allowing them to understand the pitch.
Previous leaders would have pursued wickets immediately, cramping the batsmen with catchers and forcing them into taking risks for boundaries. Not Ponting, not this Australian unit. The tactic didn't work and by the time England declared they had 373 for 9, setting their opponents a nominal target of 546 for the Ashes.
At the beginning of the day the hosts led by 230 and even ones came as a relief to the home supporters. That small total might already have been out of reach at that stage, but Australia's bowlers made sure the task for their batsmen would be impossible. After Peter Siddle's ripping first ball, which seared through the pitch and brushed Trott's thigh, there was little to be happy with until they reached 80 without loss at stumps.
Mitchell Johnson was given only two overs at the start in a strange move while Ben Hilfenhaus also delivered a dozen deliveries before his first break. Having been victims of Broad's at-the-stumps line, the Australia quicks tried a varied tactic where they alternated between full, wide and short balls. It felt like they were back at Lord's again, where history's weight turned them tense.
Stuart Clark came on and was tight without being effective and his predictability allowed Strauss to walk down the pitch and plant him for four through cover. Marcus North, the occasional offspinner, was the most difficult prospect although he struggled, as he should, with building pressure and maintaining control. Ponting had pushed to keep the winning team from Headingley and got his wish, entering the game without a specialist slow bowler.
Michael Clarke's left-armers were tried before lunch and gave up 20 in three overs. None of Ponting's gambles were working, mainly because Strauss and Trott were now settled and the Australians knew the game had already gone. Over the rest of the innings England had total control and Ponting's mind and mouth were throbbing with discomfort.
Johnson returned in horrible shape, making his mini-spell at the start of the day seem like a good idea. More width, more boundaries, more wides, more confusion. He is as comfortable in England as Steve Harmison is overseas. Mercy from Strauss came with an hour to go when Trott, impressive and unflustered throughout, sliced to gully on 119. Now the hard stuff really began.
Some rain and Kevin Pietersen helped turn the last Ashes Test at The Oval into a drawn-out series defeat and this one should end the same way for Ponting and his fresh team. In 2005 Ponting started the campaign with blood dribbling from his cheek at Lord's and will end this one with more spilt claret in London. For most of Ponting's life a tour of England was the highlight for an Australian player. The experience has not been as enjoyable under his leadership.
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