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Captain Ponting rises from the Ashes

SUSTAINING a great sporting dynasty is in itself a difficult task as Ricky Ponting has found since taking over as Australia captain five years ago.

Reshaping a side capable of matching past giants is an altogether tougher challenge. On the evidence of the current series in South Africa it is a challenge which may yet prove Ponting's greatest triumph.

The one blot on Ponting's career has been the Ashes defeat in the unforgettable 2005 series. Although his side took swift revenge by trouncing England 5-0 in Australia, Ponting would dearly love to beat the old foe on its home grounds this year.

Ponting signalled his determination to put Australia back at the top after losing series to India and South Africa by pulling out of the Indian Premier League this year to concentrate solely on the national side.

On Tuesday, his team avenged its defeat at home to South Africa by taking an unbeatable 2-0 lead in the return series. England, which meets Australia in Cardiff on July 8 in the opening test of the 2009 Ashes, failed on the same day to snatch the win which would have squared its series in the West Indies.

"It is certainly a unique phase in my career as a captain," Ponting said in Durban. "To have a number of debutantes and a number of inexperienced guys in the side, it's something I haven't been accustomed to in the majority of my career as a captain.

"I've said right from the start that when these challenges come up and this transitional phase first started I always looked at it as being one of the most exciting little phases of my career."

The key to Australia's transformation has been left-arm fast bowler Mitchell Johnson, who has added vicious late inswing to extreme if sometimes erratic pace.

He has been admirably supported by the aggression of Peter Siddle and the accuracy of Ben Hilfenhaus while the injured Stuart Clark and Brett Lee are waiting in the wings.

All-rounder Marcus North scored a century in his first test to go along with his accurate off-spin and Andrew Symonds may not now reclaim his place after a series of well-publicized off-field antics.

Australia's most exciting new cricketer is opener Phillip Hughes, who in the second test became the youngest player to score a century in each innings.

Hughes, who reached his maiden century with successive sixes, is reminiscent of Adam Gilchrist in both style and approach. Another Gilchrist so soon after the original retired is about the last thing the England bowlers will want after toiling mostly in vain on the dead Caribbean pitches.

England will return home after the forthcoming one-day series with more questions than answers after a frustrating stint in the Caribbean.

Captain Andrew Strauss predictably found some positives after falling two wickets short of winning the final test in Trinidad.

His own form with the bat would have been one, after England capitulated for 51 in its second innings in the first test in Jamaica.

Kevin Pietersen, as his century from 88 balls in the final test showed, can turn a match. But there is still a brittle feel to the England batting and even in English conditions its bowlers will struggle in the Ashes.

On the evidence of the Windies series, Andrew Flintoff remains its best but also its most injury-prone fast bowler.

The England management seem finally to have lost patience with Steve Harmison who has been consistently ineffective when the pitches give neither pace nor bounce and Ryan Sidebottom looks innocuous when the ball does not swing.

There was no doubt who was the happier of the rival Ashes captains on Tuesday night.

"We have not given South Africa an inch and I'm as happy as I have ever been in my career," said Ponting. "It's a special win."


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