Australia v England, 4th Test, Melbourne, 3rd day December 28, 2010

The sad demise of Ponting

His team needed a huge score, but Australia's captain managed just 20 as the end of a career looms larger

Ricky Ponting cannot stir himself from his Ashes nightmare and when he wakes on Wednesday his side will be only four wickets from a defeat that ends any dreams of winning back the urn. A day after being fined 40% of his match fee for arguing with the umpires, Ponting failed to inspire his side and went quietly for 20 when he needed 200.

A cloud of depression hangs over Ponting and it seems the only way it will clear is if he walks away from the side he has been trying so hard to nurture. Stepping back is not part of his nature so he may require a push - either out of the side or down the order.

The rest of the players look to Ponting as a role model, but he is not providing them with many valuable lessons. In this game the troubles of his predicament morphed into an ugly debate over a dismissal that earned the fine and he has provided only 30 runs, taking his tally to 113 at 16.14 for the series.

It has been sad to watch such a great No.3 perform so consistently poorly at crucial times. He looks fit but fidgety, slim but a touch slow to respond to the bowlers. When Tim Bresnan forced Ponting back, he jumped awkwardly and thrust down an angled bat, which rebounded the ball on to the stumps. The shot was played by a man no longer in total control.

At 36, he is nearing the end of a wonderful career yet the only time he has been able to find his voice is when approaching officials. He was booed when stepping on to the MCG to bat, mostly by the English supporters, before the Australian fans responded with a long cheer for the hero who has steered them to so much success and a handful of key failures. Winning the Ashes is the most important responsibility for an Australian captain but Ponting has almost given them up three times.

While a drawn series is still possible, the Sydney Test will not be a celebration. Apart from a couple of days in Brisbane and Perth, Australia have been outplayed by a side that has been purring at every spot except Paul Collingwood at No.5. The hosts are wobbling in too many departments and on the same surface on which England skipped to 513, Australia scraped to 98 and 6 for 169.

Ponting was not the only local batsman to falter in both innings, with Michael Clarke, Phillip Hughes and Michael Hussey also managing less than 40 runs for the game. But he is the man that matters most to the side.

"Ricky doesn't need any encouragement because he's been there and done so much throughout his whole career," Shane Watson said in defence of his leader. "He's a very tough man mentally and he's shown that throughout his career. Everyone is - and will always be - right behind Ricky. He's been a brilliant leader for us."

Watson said Ponting was still the right man to captain Australia after the Ashes. "Of course he can," Watson said. "It's unfortunate he hasn't scored as many runs as he would've liked.

"But no-one will ever question his ability to lead the group because of the things he's be able to do throughout his career and for everyone in the Australian cricket side." The questions might not be coming from within, but they are being asked by almost everyone else who follows the team.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo