Australia v England, 2nd Test, Adelaide, 1st day December 3, 2010

Australia's trouble at the top

Captain and vice-captain made a combined total of two runs for the home side and with the leaders removed Australia stumbled badly

In times of crisis teams look to their leaders for calm direction, but Australia's two most senior officers are contributing to many of the spiralling problems. Ricky Ponting is a man distracted by issues everywhere he peers and Michael Clarke isn't sure whether it's his form, his back or both that are causing his worsening troubles.

Together the confusion helped create Australia's worst opening to a Test innings in 60 years as they lost their first three wickets for two runs. Shane Watson called it "a horrendous start" and blamed himself for setting up the chain of devastating events by running out Simon Katich. Following that brutal accident, the captain and vice-captain joined the damage and were out just 13 balls and 11 minutes after the start.

Losing one leader so early was sloppy and not uncommon - it was Ponting's fifth first-ball duck in 150 Tests - but watching two drop so suddenly was disturbing. In such a tight series those handful of minutes could cost Australia the urn.

Having been controlled by England for the second half of the opening Test, Ponting satisfied himself with the fact the series was still 0-0 and his unit could strike back in Adelaide. After winning the toss, Ponting failed immediately in achieving his ambition, leaving the side two-down after five deliveries.

On Adelaide's pitch, a total of 500 is no guarantee of safety and Australia finished well short at 245, their smallest first-innings total here since 1991-92. The score was the most visible example of a team in disarray, although the mix-up run-outs of Katich and Xavier Doherty were also prominent lowlights.

Ponting is a captain hoping to avoid his third Ashes loss while trying to regain form and hold together a squad on the verge of imploding. He seems to blame the selectors for dropping Mitchell Johnson, the side's ailing spearhead, and losing his say on the make-up of side. The off-field pressures wouldn't matter as much if Ponting was posting centuries but despite being fitter and leaner than ever, his batting powers are waning noticeably.

Over the past year, Ponting has found various strange ways of being removed, from misjudging singles to retiring hurt and glancing behind. Today his dismissal came from a more familiar flaw as he walked at James Anderson's delivery as it curled away. With his team in desperate need of stability, Ponting pushed forward tentatively instead of purposefully, hitting his pad on the way through.

At 35, Ponting can no longer overcome the extra early movement and his edge went to second slip, where Graeme Swann dived to his left for an excellent take. A good ball was played unsatisfactorily and Ponting was second in the long line of disappointed local batsmen.

Clarke, who was next to depart, has been a great Ashes batsman in the past two series, but hasn't provided anything convincing in his opening two outings of this campaign. Since he moved to No.4 in July he has averaged 18.5 in 10 bats, with his 2 in this innings sitting uncomfortably with his 9 in Brisbane. One spot in the order has made a huge difference.

After his side's painful double-loss, Clarke stepped out on a ground on which he has three Test hundreds. A player in his vital position needs to decide whether to hang on or take off, but he was bound by the insecurity of his stroke-play and could do neither. In six deliveries he glanced a single to fine leg and played and missed twice to Stuart Broad, who then forced him to turn his head from a short ball. Clarke's awkward fend ended in his final single and more lengthy discussions about his fitness.

Clarke doesn't deliver public excuses and said on Wednesday that his back injury, which flared two weeks before the opening Test, is not causing him any restrictions. He didn't blame it on his stuttering in Brisbane and won't for this brief display. Yet something is seriously wrong.

Ponting spent a long time with his deputy in the nets the day before the game, but that one-on-one tutorial didn't cause a turnaround. When he edged another Anderson ball that was moving away, Clarke was off balance, lunging forward at a danger which needed to be defended.

As the leader in waiting, Clarke could be installed as captain by early next year if Ponting fails to win back the urn. The looming pressure is another weight dragging down Ponting and Clarke, along with all the other fitness and form concerns of their group. Both men have company in this crisis, with damage occurring from top to bottom.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo