Ponting's century drought continues
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