Ponting's time is running out as his team slips away
Ricky Ponting is losing control of everything he desires in cricket. His influence on the side is disappearing and his power over the selectors has waned. His batting is an imitation of the man who once swung at the same level as Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Ponting is physically at his fittest and looks in fabulous shape, but his mind, 36 years old on Sunday, is winding down.
His team is in even greater decline. Valued players let him down often and the new faces are not yet helping. Ponting is in charge during Australia's most damaging crisis since the mid-1980s and the situation becomes worse by the day. Everything is going wrong: the wrong XI chosen, the wrong attitude employed and the wrong shots displayed after the coin fell England's way.
Australia did recover from a horror first session to post 268, but it will take something extremely special over the next four days to stop England from taking the 2-0 lead that would ensure they retain the urn. Ponting is already facing the prospect of becoming only the second Australian to lose three Ashes series. If that happens his hold on the captaincy will be weak and he is not a man who will play without the leadership. In this form, with 80 runs in five bats in the series, Australia wouldn't want him to.
The time has come to speak in the past tense of Ponting as a great batsman. Sparks may remain but the periods of sustained excellence have gone. Ponting walks to the wicket on reputation and has been leaving without regular results. He has played 24 Tests since the start of last year and averaged 39.87, including series against West Indies and New Zealand, and two against Pakistan. A No.3 who previously created fear has become a shadow.
Ponting is meant to be the one Australian batsman who can change the game or wrestle back the series. Picking four specialist fast bowlers, omitting the spinner Michael Beer and then losing the toss made his task even harder. He was called to the middle after two overs following Phillip Hughes' early legside wobble, and was lucky to last more than three balls. If England had four slips instead of three, Ponting probably wouldn't have scored. Briefly, his fortune had changed.
Boundaries from a pull and a flick to midwicket raced him to 12 off nine deliveries. He was aggressive and seemed in, but he could not tone down the high-energy tempo, a trait his batting partners also struggled to conquer. Four wickets fell in an opening session that required graft not glamour.
Ponting used to love the bounce of Perth, a ground which hasn't always treated him well. He was lbw, hit high on the thigh, when 96 on debut back when he was already destined for greatness. Last year he was struck on the left elbow by Kemar Roach here, forcing him to retire hurt after a painful, jumpy display. There were more jerky movements today as he attempted to get on top of the ball but couldn't.
To his tenth delivery he leaned on his back foot to James Anderson and pushed unconvincingly at the ball, which found his edge and shot towards Paul Collingwood at third slip. Collingwood launched himself to his right and the ball buried in his outstretched hand. It was a catch Ponting would have claimed a couple of years ago, but one that would surely escape his reach now.
Ponting's lips pursed as he watched the brilliant interception and he then turned his head in anger, disbelief and resignation. He left slowly, watching the replay on the way back, and seeing the score. Yes, he was really out, the victim again. The team was 2 for 17 and heading to an even worse start than the destruction of Adelaide. It would soon be 4 for 36 and 5 for 69 before the rally from Michael Hussey, Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson.
Michael Clarke, the leader in waiting, went with a tame waft outside off and Shane Watson was beaten by a searing yorker from Steven Finn. Smith, a batsman Ponting didn't think was good enough for the top six five months ago, tried hard but went tamely after lunch. Haddin is too low at No.7.
In the second session Ponting sat next to his mate Justin Langer, who doubles as the side's batting coach. They have a lot to fix but no guaranteed way of achieving answers.
Usually when Ponting talks publicly he is so reassuring about his team, remaining convincing even during extended losing streaks. On the eve of the match he made a rare slip. When asked if his captaincy could survive another Ashes loss he said the choice was out of his hands. "The powers that be will make those decisions I guess at the end of the series, or after this Test match," he said.
Ponting was the one who brought forward his potential judgment day. He doesn't want to leave the scene, as he showed with his funereal shuffle off the ground after his dismissal, but he knows the price of continual individual and team failure.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo