A captain strives, but fails
This was personal. From the moment Ricky Ponting marked centre on Sunday, all present at The Oval realised this innings - his 50th against England - held a significance beyond all others. Fate and circumstance had conspired to deliver the Australian captain to the centre with his team 459 runs in arrears and facing the ignominy of back-to-back away Ashes defeats. Ponting sought to redress the balance.
As it stood, Ponting's captaincy experience in England was already bookended with blood. Steve Harmison's bouncer at Lord's four years ago left a facial scar that remains to this day, and Matt Prior's forceful drive into Ponting at silly-point on Saturday split open his lip. But more acute than any physical pain was the prospect that Ponting, a proud man with a formidable record, could become the first captain since Billy Murdoch in 1890 to lead Australia to two Ashes defeats in England.
The cards were stacked against him long before he emerged from the Pavilion for the second innings. Having misread the pitch and lost a crucial toss, Australia were forced to battle an England side with a spinner-less attack in conditions they would invariably have the worse of. The tourists compounded those setbacks with an indisciplined first-day bowling performance and a calamitous outing with the bat on Friday. Only a world-record fourth-innings run chase would do, and Ponting took to the centre with determined intent.
The agitated, impatient Ponting of the first innings did not appear; replaced by a steadier, committed batsman more familiar to cricketing audiences around the world. Eyes watchful and defence rigid, Ponting steered Australia's improbable run chase with a steady hand; his swivel-pull always at the ready whenever the bowlers shortened in length.
With his half-century came hope that Australia might just have clawed their way back into the contest. But the notion was fleeting. In a moment of madness, Michael Hussey called Ponting through for a suicide single, only for Andrew Flintoff - in his final act of genius in the white flannels - to gun down the stumps from mid-on with the Australian captain well short of his ground. The Oval crowd's generous ovation will have done little to cushion the blow. Another Ashes defeat was being stapled to Ponting's captaincy resume.
"With me being the leader, the captain, wanting to stand up and perform when we were under the most pressure, I wanted to make a big score," Ponting said after play. "(The run-out) was the turning point in the way the game finished up. We had started to wrestle some momentum back in our favour. We were going along really nicely at that stage .. (and) then two run-outs in two overs and then a stumping soon after and all the momentum had turned back against us.
"I've never doubted myself in anything I've ever done when I've had the baggy green cap on. I always get out there and accept challenges the best that I can. I wanted to make 100 today, to be the last man out. I couldn't do that. As a leader and a captain i wanted to do as well as I possibly could, to hopefully be the captain that won here, but I haven't been able to do that either. I'm disappointed with own performances and other guys are as well."
The blowtorch will inevitably be turned in Ponting's direction after a loss that will see his side plummet to fourth-place in the Test rankings. Much of the heat will be justified - bowling decisions on the final day at Sophia Gardens and the first day at Lord's, for instance - but others will not. The misfiring of Mitchell Johnson was a problem beyond his control, and Australia's rabbit-in-the-headlights batting in the first innings at Lord's, Edgbaston and The Oval was the product of inexperience, rather than leadership.
If there are to be calls for Ponting's head, they should be ignored by Jolimont. He remains, by some measure, the best man to lead the Australian team and his batting, as witnessed on Sunday, is still world class. His main task hereafter will be to ensure the sting of Ashes defeat does not level the confidence of his young side, but rather spurs them to greater things. It is an ominous task, but one he has managed before.
"I'll be answering some questions," he said. "You always do when you lose a game or a series like this, it's part of the job, what leaders are expected to do."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo