Experienced hands rescue Australia
For much of the past two years, Ricky Ponting has appeared to be at sixes and sevens at the crease. At least he's now at 60s and 70s. Ponting is still searching for that elusive, drought-breaking hundred, having not scored one in a Test since January 2010. But his scores in recent times have been more promising: in his past six innings he has made 62, 78, 5, 16, 62 and 60.
A century in the Boxing Day Test would have been one of those moments that lived on in the memories of all present, like Steve Waugh reaching triple figures in the final over of the day at the SCG in 2003. It wasn't to be. But Ponting and Michael Hussey, the two oldest and most under-pressure members of the middle order, did manage to steer Australia into a reasonable position after another top-order collapse.
Hussey finished the day unbeaten on 79. That meant he would not endure a fifth-straight poor Test. At least he was coming off three Man-of-the-Match efforts in the previous series, in Sri Lanka. Ponting's testing patch has been far longer. At 37, lean streaks can be career-ending. As a champion player and former captain, Ponting has been given extra breathing space.
So far, he has retained the support of the Australian selectors, but debate over his place has raged in the media. Positive innings like those he has played at the MCG over the past three days will encourage John Inverarity's panel to keep picking him. And Ponting, who received standing ovations as he walked on to the field in both innings, and as he departed raising his bat, still has the desire to bat on.
"I don't care what people from outside the dressing-room are saying," Ponting said. "If I feel like I've got some support inside the dressing-room, then that's all that really matters to me. I want to do the best I can to get this Australian cricket team back to a higher rank than we are at the moment. I want to be a consistent run-scorer along the way in doing that. I want to do the best I can to win games for Australia. There's plenty of motivation for me.
"Right through the last few months when things probably haven't been going the way I would have wanted, the support from the public has been outstanding. This week it has been really nice, even to walk on to the field for the start of my first innings I got a really loud cheer there, and then to get fifty in each innings, I've got a lot of support from the public here in Melbourne. That's a nice feeling."
Those who cheered him on to the field in the second innings were hoping desperately he could arrest the team's early slide. Ponting came to the crease at 2 for 16. Soon, it was 4 for 27. By then, the day had produced 11 wickets in 43 overs, alarmingly the same number of wickets that fell in the first 43 overs of the second day of last month's Cape Town Test, when 23 fell in the day.
Hussey and Ponting made sure that wasn't repeated. But Australia's batting problems continued all the same. They were the only two men who reached double figures. David Warner, Shaun Marsh and Michael Clarke all played on, perhaps in part done in by seam movement but also by their desire to be attacking. It was the second such dismissal for Clarke in this Test.
Ed Cowan departed doing what he does best, but this time his leave was ill-judged, as the ball was straightening and he was trapped lbw. Brad Haddin, for the umpteenth time, greeted a situation that demanded patience with aggression, lofting R Ashwin into the deep despite the presence of men on the boundary on the leg side. He survived that, but fell soon after, poking at a ball he could have left.
"We've spoken about that and have tried to address it," Ponting said of the side's collapses over the past 18 months. "Most of our batting collapses of late have actually been in the second innings, when we've had games to set up.
"I thought the way Mike approached his batting today when he came to the crease was the way you want to play. You have to show great intent in those situations and you have to be able to counterattack at different times. I though the way Mike Hussey handled that situation today was great."
So was the way Ponting played, perhaps with the exception of a horrible drive at Umesh Yadav, the ball nipping through the enormous gate between bat and pad and narrowly missing the off stump. Wisely, he left the next delivery alone.
He and Hussey made certain there was no Cape Town repeat on this occasion. And for their own futures, as well as that of their team in this Test, they could hardly have chosen a better time to shine.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo