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July 24, 2010
It was only a week ago that Ricky Ponting said he and his men had one eye on the Ashes series later this year. Every match since they gave up the urn at The Oval last August has been geared towards regaining the prize. Instead of looking that far forward, they will now need to cast their gaze inwards after a loss that represents a worrying blip in their preparations.
For the first time in 15 years, Pakistan beat Australia in a Test match. It was the first defeat for Ponting's side since the last Ashes tour, and it came against an inexperienced team with a new captain. Yes, it went down to the wire and yes, had Australia held a couple of catches the result could easily have been different, but that would not have been an accurate reflection on the balance of power in the match.
There is no escaping the fact that Australia were outplayed at Headingley, where the middle order's frailty and the unreliability of the pace attack emerged as concerns for Ponting. Not that he said as much after the game - he has been at pains for many months to point out that the side's rebuilding period is over - and he was quick to hose down any talk of serious trouble ahead of the Ashes.
"Late November is a long way away yet," Ponting said. "We're not even focusing on the Ashes just yet. A loss quite often just highlights some of the things you're not doing well. That's all this week will do for us. We know we've got to continue to work hard and not take anything for granted.
"I don't think it will do too much to dent our confidence. You want to win every game that you play, there's no doubt about that. We haven't been at our best in this game, there's no doubt about that. It's not just the batting, I think the bowling has been a little bit off at different times through this Test match."
Although Doug Bollinger, Mitchell Johnson and Ben Hilfenhaus fired up on the fourth morning to give Australia a sniff of what would have been a remarkable victory, the fast men generally bowled to a scattergun line during the series. There are also question-marks over Marcus North, whose tally from four innings was 36 including two ducks, while Ponting, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke and Shane Watson all produced sub-par batting contributions over the series.
In the end, Australia's first innings at Headingley was the difference. As the old cliché goes, it's not over until the fat lady sings, but there were two such fat ladies on the opening day: 88. Recovering from that batting slump was too great a task, and Ponting's decision at the toss to bat in overcast conditions against a Pakistan attack full of talented swing bowlers was a major factor.
"There's no doubt it's had a big impact," Ponting said of his call. "That's my responsibility, to get those sort of things right. Looking back now, I was a bit surprised how much it seamed on that first day. Everyone who looked at the wicket that morning, it was dry and had surface cracks in it already. It certainly wasn't something that had heaps of grass on it and you expected to seam all over the place, but it did that."
The loss has left Australia to look back on a pretty unsuccessful winter tour. The Tests were shared 1-1, Pakistan took the Twenty20s 2-0, and England triumphed 3-2 in the one-day internationals. Ponting may well wish he'd stayed at home in Sydney and worked on his golf handicap, for all the good the trip has done his team.
They must now treat the two-Test tour of India in October as an Ashes warm-up, and a final chance to decide on their preferred outfit before facing Andrew Strauss and his boys at the Gabba. Performances on the dusty Indian pitches might not be a great indicator of form on Australia's quicker surfaces, but poor touch in India will raise the pressure for the Ashes.
"If you were trying to set down and map your perfect preparation for an Ashes series or a home series, it probably wouldn't be playing two Test matches in India," Ponting said. "But you don't live in an ideal world. That's the way international cricket is these days. We'll go over there and do whatever we can, play the best cricket we possibly can."
For the time being, they have two months to think about how they are positioned. After seven consecutive victories against West Indies, Pakistan and New Zealand from December to July they felt they were well-placed. Those wins now seem a little less significant.
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