When the Music Stops

Ricky Thomas Ponting is, in more ways than you can count, a typical Australian Test cricketer. Indeed, he embodies the emotional makeup of virtually any successful professional sportsman. He doesn't do sentiment, or regret, or wistfulness. Such feelings are the privilege of the retired player, who can afford to look back at his career in anger, sorrow or pride with the certain knowledge that it can't blunt the sharpness of the competitive response that's vital for survival at the highest level of the game.

But Ponting wouldn't be human if he didn't reflect a little on the way things have changed for Australia in recent times. This is a man who's played nearly all his career in a team without peer; for much of that time he has been its leader and its best batsman. Now, as the autumn of his own great career draws in, he finds himself in charge of a team which just can't do what it used to. He knows it, his team-mates know it, and now other teams know it too.

Ponting said back in the English summer that he was relishing the different challenges that captaining a lesser side presented. I've no doubt he meant what he said at the time, but that was before they were beaten by Pakistan at Headingley; their two recent defeats, the second ultimately comfortable, to India have nailed the coffin lid shut on the invincible years. The music has stopped, and Ponting is still holding the parcel. The only trouble is that he doesn't know what to do with it.

While the batting is still respectable, it is far, far more vulnerable than it ever used to be, and his attack is too dependent on a spinner he doesn't trust and a quickie so erratic that it would be a shock if he really trusted himself. For all the optimism, promise and doggedness of Watson, George and Hilfenhaus, they're just not good enough to carry an attack, especially in unfamiliar conditions. There are alternatives - Bollinger, Siddle, Lee, Smith - but nobody capable of intimidating opponents with their sheer excellence in the way that was second nature to Warne and McGrath.

For me the outcome of the Ashes series still appears magnificently uncertain. Home advantage will tell, and, as everyone knows, Australians are never beaten. England's batting is a concern, but they will have seen nothing whatever to worry them over the past two weeks.

For every uncertainty, though, there is a certainty. While today's outstanding innings was Cheteshwar Pujara's first fifty for India, it sure as hell won't be his last.

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