Ponting v Vaughan: there is no argument

This winter's Ashes in Australia has taken a new look.

Nothing sums up the difference between both sides than the state of both captains. Since that awesome Ashes series last summer came to a euphoric end at The Oval in September, Ricky Ponting
has gone from superb talent to virtual phenomenon, while Michael Vaughan has slumped from leader of a new era to hobbling, crippled has-been. Ponting's brilliant face-saving hundred against Bangladesh in early April was his ninth in 14 Tests - including an average of 76 in his last 10 - and the manner in which he scored those runs has been incredible. Forget Tendulkar, Lara, Hayden, whoever. Ponting is the most dangerous batsman in world cricket.

His jaw-dropping run began with a magnificent 149 at the Gabba against West Indies - none of his team-mates went past 50 - and progressed to a superb hundred at the MCG on an opening day when eight wickets fell, a double-bill at Sydney (his 100th Test), and culimated with two more hundreds against South Africa at Durban to seal a series win. It all starts at Brisbane on November 23. No matter how many runs he scores, and how many centuries he makes Ponting's destiny is irrevocably tied to the fate of the Ashes.

Across the oceans, in cold, dreary England, a dodgy knee has been the topic of speculation and ridicule for much of the last six months, ever since Vaughan was troubled in Pakistan and forced home from India. As captain, he has been only a moderate batsman: if you take out matches against Bangladesh, his Test average has been 32. In his last three series, against South Africa away, Australia home and Pakistan away, it has slipped to 29. Although he has been playing for Yorkshire for the last month, Vaughan is still troubled by the damn injury. England have had three different captains in the meantime - Trescothick, Flintoff and Strauss - and won two, lost four, and drawn three. In comparison, Australia have not lost a Test since surrendering the little urn.

Physios have gone from confident to disappointed to downright shaky about Vaughan's chances of a recovery before the Ashes. The latest report is that surgery is required - the suggestion is an American expert who has worked with other English mishaps - but this would sideline him for nine months. Vaughan, aside, England will be without Simon Jones and Ashley Giles. Jones was a superb performer with the ball, confounding the Aussies with his manic reverse swing, while Giles' talismanic presence - this after being rubbished by many for being included in England's side - was one that proved all too precious for England.

As Duncan Fletcher watches his Ashes-winning side fall apart day-by-day, it is hard to envision another thrilling contest.

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