Ponting stoops to conquer
When the magic moment came, Ricky Ponting, who hadn't savoured the joy of a hundred for over two years, found himself sprawled on the dirt, having been inches away from heartbreak. As it turned out, the dive - which is not really a Ponting thing - wouldn't have saved him had Zaheer Khan's throw from mid-on found its mark.
Hundreds are a peculiar thing, one of the great idiosyncrasies of cricket that players and fans obsess about. By the time he got to 97, Ponting and Michael Clarke had already driven Australia to the point of near-unassailable ascendancy, which was a remarkable recovery from 3 for 37. This was only the second time in his career he had reeled off three half centuries in successive Tests, and surely he had earned himself the right to choose the course of his immediate future. But still, the failure to bring up the hundred would have counted as a tragedy.
The moment had built itself up nicely. Zaheer Khan had bowled a canny and tight over before lunch - leg-slip in place, midwicket catching, first round-the-wicket, then over - to keep him stuck on 97 with some help from Sachin Tendulkar, who hared to his right from mid-on and dived further to the right to save a boundary. Clarke had waltzed to his hundred with a cover drive, unfurled with casual majesty. When he scampered back for a second to deny Ponting the strike in the last over before lunch, the crowd booed.
Zaheer opened after lunch with the same field and the same line of attack. The first ball was tapped back to the bowler, the second defended to the offside, the next two left alone, the fifth clipped to through mid-wicket - certainly more than one was on, possibly even three, but they got two in the end. The last ball he played softly down to cover and Clarke nearly ran himself out by charging down for the single.
Two more overs passed. Clarke creamed one past backward point for four and worked the fifth ball through to legside for three. Ponting defended the last ball from Ishant Sharma and then Zaheer bowled a maiden to Clarke. By now, the wait for the final three runs was well over an hour, counting the lunch break. If you blocked the scoreboard out of your vision, you would feel India were in control.
And then came the dab to mid-on and the charge down the wicket. Zaheer Khan moves in the field with bovine languor these days, but the ball had gone quickly and straight to him. Ponting lunged forward with his bat, and then he dived. And the ball fizzed past the stumps. Ponting was flat on his stomach with his head buried in the ground when the crowd erupted.
It wasn't a picture of a man in his moment of triumph. He took a few moments to get up on to his haunches, then to his feet. His shirt was dirty. He still had the helmet on. His grille was pressing against his face and he was trying the spit the dirt out his mouth so that he could smile.
But it was an image most appropriate for the moment. It was the picture of a man who had fought and overcome.
The story of Ponting's battle and redemption must count among the most compelling and uplifting in cricket. Not merely had it been a test of skills but also one of character. He hadn't blazed his way back, as cricketers sometimes do in their youth. He had to first accept and then work around the limitations age and slowing reflexes can impose. Most of all, he had shown humility and the willingness to work his way back.
First, there was the willingness to accept that he was no longer the best man to lead Australia and then the grace to submit himself wholeheartedly to the will of his successor. Those who have been in leadership positions will know how tough it is to join the ranks again. It is a credit to both Ponting and Clarke that not only has there been no unease in the team but that Ponting remains an inspirational figure in the dressing-room.
Though he resisted it during the first part of his slump, Ponting hasn't sat on his pride over his batting position. He has even learnt to let a few bouncers alone.
Midway through this series, Ponting is Australia's most consistent batsman. But both in Sydney and Melbourne he let his partner take charge. It was Hussey who got Australia going during that critical last session on the third evening at the MCG after four wickets had fallen for 27. And at the SCG, Clarke took immediate control by reeling off early boundaries after Zaheer Khan had taken the first three out. By acknowledging and submitting to the superiority of his partners, Ponting allowed himself to quietly get into stride.
By late evening yesterday, the feet were striding confidently forward and the bat was creating more familiar arcs. In the 16th over of the innings, he leaned forward to a swinging ball from Umesh Yadav and breezed it through cover. And two balls later, when Yadav banged it short, he swiftly swivelled around to deposit it at the square-leg boundary. And when he stood tall to on-drive Ishant Sharma twice through midwicket this morning, all seemed well with Ricky's world again.
From there, the century was only a matter of time.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo