Australia v India, 1st Test, MCG, 1st day December 26, 2011

Ponting's century drought continues

The stage was set for Ricky Ponting to make his first hundred in almost two years, and while he looked fluent at the crease, in the end the wait continued

On the flight to Australia I had a vision so palpably vivid that I convinced myself that I had sneaked a look at the future. That feeling was reinforced when the toss took place at the appointed hour, despite the sheets of rain and the barrage of hail that kept Christmas revelry confined indoors, and Michael Clarke chose to bat. At some point late in the afternoon, I could visualise Ricky Ponting taking off his helmet to soak in the adulation of a Boxing Day crowd saluting his 40th Test hundred.

The last time I saw Ponting bat at the MCG, he serenely strolled to 257 against the same opponents. It helped that he was fresh from a 242 in the earlier Test at Adelaide, though Australia somehow managed to lose after scoring 556 in the first innings, 400 of them on the first day. As Matthew Hayden went about blitzing India, Ponting picked off his runs as if they belonged to him.

It was the golden phase of his career: including the runs from that Test, he would end the year with 1503 runs and six hundreds, three of them doubles, and an average of 100.20. He had just been married and carried the stability of his personal life on to the field: his batting had lost a bit of impetuosity, but he was a more commanding batsman for it. When India spread the field wide to deny him boundaries, he deftly worked the ball in to the spaces and ran twos.

The world is a bit different now. Ponting hasn't sniffed a hundred in nearly two years. Since his last -209 against Pakistan at Hobart in January 2010 -- he has averaged 27.48 from 30 innings, and every failure adds inches and sharpness to the knives closing in on him. But that adds to the appeal of watching him. Cricket is rewarding enough these days for players to hang on to their careers, but with Ponting, as with Sachin Tendulkar, you sense a grander purpose than a central contract: it's tough to give up something that defines you, something you still love.

In the earlier part of his career, it wasn't a natural thing to like Ponting. He wasn't a stylist; he got in to trouble off the field; and to many fans, both in and outside Australia, he represented the ugly side of the champion Australian teams of the last two decades. But as Australia started to lose under his captaincy, the statesman in Ponting emerged. He was graceful in defeat: rarely did he seek excuses or shift the blame and often in his press conferences he was ruminative and reflective, humourous even. And as the runs have dried up, and the struggle has become apparent, his fragility has made him even more endearing. And in an odd way, he has become more compelling to watch than in his pomp. If there is indeed a final hurrah, a grand last flourish to an outstanding career, you want to be there when the breakthrough happens.

Ponting has come to close that breakthrough in his last few innings. At Johannesburg, his 62 set the stage for the Australian chase and his 78 against New Zealand at Brisbane came when his team wasn't yet out of the woods. And then, Kapil Dev had sounded prophetic a few nights ago when he said, in dead seriousness even though it drew laughter from his audience, that down the years, India's bowlers had proven to be the best medicine for out-of-form batsmen. What better stage than the MCG on the opening day of the Boxing Day Test match?

It is a sign of the times that even rookies fancy bouncing him these days, but even a second-ball knock to his head from Umesh Yadav seemed to work to his advantage. For a start, it seemed to have focused him. If anything he was deceived by the slowness of the ball and had finished playing the stroke before the ball found his helmet. More crucially, it fooled India in to setting the bouncer trap. Instead of trying to nail him leg before with full and straight deliveries, they peppered him with short balls and Ponting fed on them with relish.

Though only one wicket fell in the middle session, it was the most engrossing of the day. Ponting stamped his authority early, pulling and rising on his toes for boundaries. But Ishant Sharma, who announced himself to the world by dismissing Ponting after a searing examination at Perth in 2008, bowled the best spell of the day in the third hour, hitting a spot on the good length and making the ball climb. One of them took the shoulder of Ponting's bat as he came gingerly forward and nearly carried to point.

The glory though was to belong to another newcomer. Yadav, who has, it turns out, been given the licence to concede runs in order to take wickets, followed up a sharp bouncer with a ball that moved away enough to catch Ponting's tentative prod. In 2003, he would have gone nowhere near that ball. But today he merely ended my delusions about clairvoyance.

All day I had been telling anyone who cared to listen that I was going to write about the Ponting hundred. Cricket's obsession with hundreds is obviously one of its peculiarities. In isolation, the 62 today was a fine effort from a batsman considering to be struggling for form. The bigger story of course, is that players like Ponting are judged by their own past. He took his time getting off the wicket, not because there was any doubt about the edge, but because, once again, he had missed the chance to turn a good day into a great day. Also perhaps because of the awareness that even the good days are growing rarer.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Musti on December 27, 2011, 5:09 GMT

    I think Ponting has already been given a very looong rope and he hasn't done anything substantial to justify that. An average of 27.48 in 30 innings would be considered too bad for even a promising youngster, leave alone for someone who has crossed 37 years of age. It is time that he is dropped since he doesn't quit on his own. He should have quit after the test at Hobart against New Zealand. Some one like Usman Khawaja deserves more chances as with the confidence that he will be given a longer run he can do better. Australia should look at the future, think of what youngsters like Khawaja can do and not at what Ponting has done in the past!

  • Dummy4 on December 27, 2011, 2:07 GMT

    Ricky is certainly the favorite. I never as much doubted his intent as people made him to be the bad guy. He has always been as true as it comes to the game. Plays hard to the last drop of his sweat and the last clause of legality in the game. People boo him only coz. they misinterpret him, poor fella those...but ponting does not mind that much, shows that lovely grin and answers all the questions raised to him honestly. Enjoy these legends when the time is still there folks, they wouldn't turn back once the clock ticks the time away...Heres hoping for a comeback, not too heavy on India though.....:p

  • kanishka on December 27, 2011, 2:07 GMT

    Perhaps the best bittersweet thing would be for Ponting to announce his retirement for the Adelaide Test and then go out with a hundred. He has been a thorn in the Indian side for years, but I would like him to see him go out in style.

  • Chris on December 27, 2011, 0:07 GMT

    I'm sorry, but the lbw for a lower order useless batsmen like Haddin is nothing compared to the wickets of Cowan and Hussey. Indian fans have no cause to say that all was fair with the umpiring.

  • Santhosh on December 26, 2011, 23:42 GMT

    Well researched article but I suspect the reality is shadowed. As long as the winning streak continues, it would be of little concern for the team if Punter hunts or not. True, as a player of erstwhile winning squads, for men like him, a ton would make so much of difference; it's a team game though where each little contribution is accumulated creating a resounding success. Far away from this Kangaroo land, there is one man who is also involved in Boxing Day 2011 match at MCG. Sachin. People safely and surely forget his little and little extra innings and cry foul when his tons do not fetch the teams he is part of the much needed wins. So, the bigger question is if these tons and ton making abilities do matter in a team winning.

  • Prem on December 26, 2011, 23:38 GMT

    Ponting should retire immediately. He is looking weak and needy. He should have really retired after the 2009 Ashes series loss in England. Weak selectors and personal favouritism keep him in the team.

  • JIGNESH on December 26, 2011, 23:33 GMT

    Blasing century or half is too easy against India for Ponting or any other out-of-form player in the world, but that doesn't mean Ponting is back in the form. Ponting always makes runs against India only these days because of a lot of reasons sucha as except Kohli, and Gambhir, nobody in Indan team dive while fielding, Zaheer, Ashwin, and Laxman never even bend to field- they use their feet, the bear belly wicket-keeper(Dhoni) never dive, bowling is fast but not effective, Ashwin can turn the ball but he is a new and this is his first tour overseas. Ponting hasn't blasted a century in his last 33 innings and he comes to bat at the top order though. He crossed 50 runs mark 9 times and 4 against India during this period. This shows how out-of-form against all teams except India and in-form against only India he has been. So, please Punter's blind fans, read the comment carefully before get furious. I never heard in history of cricket that someone has broken the TV in frustration but him

  • Anthony on December 26, 2011, 23:03 GMT

    Mr Bal - I've one for you - Sachin Tendulkar is so obviously going to get is 100th 100 in test 187.

  • senthil on December 26, 2011, 22:12 GMT

    Being an Indian fan AND a huge Sachin fan, i am surprising myself no end saying this: Deep down I wish Ponting gets a century, somewhat even more than 'HIM' getting 'THE' century. I guess the reason is Sachin WILL get there, it is just a matter of time-however long that feels. And, it is a certainty that he will go out on his own terms when he choses to. Neither of these applies to Ponting - He does really appear like he has to work hard, really hard for his 100 and considering way things work down under does not have the luxury of chosing his farewell. He deserves is as much as the little grand master and test cricket will be poorer without Ricky. So, go get that elusive 100, Punter. There are thousands of fans outside Oz, am sure, rooting for you.

  • Surya on December 26, 2011, 22:08 GMT

    Perfectly stated by Chaitu14. Cowan played well but spoilt his image in my view with his post-match ramblings. He was clearly out (noise and deflection from bat) but he's hiding under the clamor for DRS after Hussey's dismissal. Cowan's dismissal is in fact a good advertisement for anti-DRS brigade as the so-called "hot spot" did not detect a straight forward nick at all (wonder if he applied oil on his bat??!!)! By any reckoning it was 1 against Aus and 1 against India (Haddin's lbw that was not given) on Day 1!

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