Gearing up for the big fight

Ricky Ponting is inexperienced. He is not as aggressive or knowledgeable as Steve Waugh and this could weigh heavily against him. England, led by Michael Vaughan, can upstage the Australians, writes TED CORBETT.

IT is make or break time for the Australian captain Ricky Ponting as, for the first time in a couple of decades, cricket holds its breath.

Everyone knows that England, on the up, and Australia, stuttering slightly, will have a titanic battle for the Ashes.

Men and women who have the money to go anywhere on the planet fly into Heathrow to see the five Tests which begin at Lord's on July 21 and, spanning only 54 days, come to a conclusion at the Oval on September 12.

I know one man who will spend August in Britain just to see some of the most momentous series in the 125 years the Ashes have been contested.

Another who will take his annual holiday in September. He won't be at the Oval. He'll be at home in Colombo with the door to his study closed, his television tuned to the satellite and an order to his household staff to supply him with coffee, every hour on the hour.

I am not just talking cricket addicts here. The folk of Britain who have just endured one of the most brutal terrorists attacks are cheered by the thought that their worst enemy, their first opponents in international cricket in 1877, ruthless but fair adversaries, might be crushed by a side who have set record upon record under their new captain Michael Vaughan.

The five grounds — Lord's and the Oval, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and Old Trafford but not Headingley, the scene of the most enthralling matches — are sold out, tickets change hands on e-bay and by the old-fashioned Royal Mail at sums that 20 years ago would have paid a Test cricketer's match fee.

Out of the woodwork come former friends, old allies and distant relatives who suddenly remember you owe them a favour.

"You don't know where I can get a Test ticket?" is the commonest question of the cricket village. No, I don't; and besides you will get a better view on TV.

And no, I don't know who is going to win either, although I have had a modest wager and, if the results go the right way, I may stake another pound or so on England to bring back the Ashes they lost — tossed away to be absolutely honest — back in 1989.

I'll never forget that summer. I forecast a tight series and victory for England; perhaps by 1-0. I have to say in my own defence that England held the Ashes after a fine tour of Australia in 1986-7 and had won them back in the 1985 series in England.

The historical perspective failed me. The Australians won 4-0 in 1989 and that forecast cost me my job, partly because, as the editor put it in a letter telling me to work elsewhere, "you have been wrong, wrong, wrong all the way through this summer".

So I have my fingers crossed that Ponting and his men, world champions when they flew out of Australia, reverse the 1989 trend when Allan Border's men were, in the estimate of those who followed them closely, "the worst team to leave our shores" and turned out to be the basis of the present heroes.

This time Australia left Melbourne with 10 victories in their last 13, world champions in every form of the game. It would be more than just a good laugh to the average Englishman to see them go home with their kangaroo tails between their legs.

We cannot assume that will be so, for all they tied with England in the NatWest final. That shows Australia have slowed down but it does not prove they will collapse as soon as Harmison, Jones, Flintoff and Hoggard face them head on.

There is no question about the quality of the players; the key to the whole series may be Ponting who begins his quest to keep the Ashes with only 13 Tests as captain behind him. He has appeared uneasy at times during the one-day matches and in his short run of Test leadership has, frankly, beaten some teams so weak that Australia might have won without a captain.

How will he measure up to the pressure cooker that is Ashes cricket? Will his batting suffer? Will he drown in the media hype that is English sports reporting? What will happen if — even for a fraction of a second — discipline breaks down, incidents blow up, off-pitch friends become on-field enemies? Can he cope?

Those close to him have no doubt Ponting will manage although they have seen him in charge of Australia so few times that they admit to a doubt.

"He has the respect of the team," says one voice. "There's no question about that. They like the way he can tell off a player and two minutes later carry on as if nothing has happened. He's one of the boys, whereas Steve Waugh was a bit more remote."

Ponting did not score a century for a year after he was given the captaincy but "he is a straightforward guy and it does not worry him if he goes a while without runs." You can see the tension though in those plunging forward strokes at the start of an innings, in his wish to consult bowlers and senior fielders if the match is tight and his sternly set shoulders and jutting jaw in the final overs.

He is not as experienced, nor as knowledgeable, nor as aggressive as Waugh, one of the great Test captains. After all, he was one of the younger guys when he donned Waugh's crown, swore that he would stick to the spirit of cricket and set out to emulate the Waugh record.

That triple target is what the Australians call A Big Ask. Is it in Ponting's range?

This wiry young man, who had to overcome disciplinary problems before he was captain, began with a huge advantage. When he took the job as Waugh quit he sought Darren Lehmann's advice all the time and, as Lehmann has one of the biggest cricket brains around, he got good answers.

Now Lehmann has retired to the commentary box and Ponting has to grow up quickly.

Can he take the next step? What will happen if Australia find themselves asked to bat first on a tricky, green wicket or last on a turning pitch? There will be no Lehmann, experienced both as a tourist and a Yorkshire all-rounder, to answer.

Suppose England bring in a newcomer — Ed Joyce of Middlesex has been named by the chairman of selectors David Graveney "to follow in Andrew Strauss' footsteps" in a quick aside to me that I take to contain good information. Will Ponting, who learnt county cricket with Somerset have Joyce's weaknesses to hand?

Indeed will he be looking over his shoulder for Lehmann when the going gets tough? The England coach Duncan Fletcher thinks that he sees indecision and a tentative pattern in Ponting's wish to consult and there seemed to be more talks when the going got tough. But bringing the best brains in the side together is not necessarily a sign of weakness.

Mike Gatting knew his own mind yet in the 1980s, when Middlesex were winning everything, he would often be no more than chairman of a five-man committee out on the field — with Clive Radley, Paul Downton, John Emburey and Phil Edmonds all putting in their forceful opinions — in the tense moments of a cup-tie.

When the chips are down it is the captain who takes responsibility. It is his name in the headlines; he has to answer to the coach, the selectors and the crowd. No use saying that it was a team decision. That is why there are extra dollars for being skipper.

Ponting's solution to the absence of Lehmann has been to ask Mike Hussey, who has gained respect around the county circuit for his cricket thinking. We have to wait to find how that combination works.

It may not be long before we know the answer because Ponting faces formidable opponents.

Vaughan learnt his tactics at Yorkshire where the players still spend their days off, their holidays, their travel time and their spare moments in every game, discussing cricket in minute detail. He counts victories in West Indies and South Africa among his achievements since he succeeded Nasser Hussain.

In the pavilion is the quiet man. The thinker. Coach Fletcher is so guarded, so restrained and so patient that you might sometimes wonder if his left hand knows what his left hand is doing.

He has moulded this England team into a fine unit fit to match Australia but perhaps not yet ready for a decisive victory.

By the end of the series we will know how good they are and the measure of Ponting as a Test captain.