Australia v India, 3rd Test, Melbourne, 3rd day December 28, 2003

End of the Indian summer?

Ricky Ponting: almost up there with the all-time greats
© Getty Images

The cricket has been so enthrallingly absorbing in this series so far because the script has been defied and the story has belonged to the underdog. But alas, no more. Having resumed normal service yesterday, Australia imposed themselves on the match in a manner so familiar to them, and when Sourav Ganguly walked out to bat at the fall of the second wicket, it was the official confirmation of what the whole world already knew: Sachin Tendulkar is in the throes of the biggest slump his career. It was a huge decision by Ganguly, and a brave one too, and he will be a hero if he can pull out a big one tomorrow, but it was a public admission that the world's best batsman needed protection. And though we do not yet know what Tendulkar thought of it, it is perhaps what he needs to stoke his dimmed fires. The Aussies are rolling again, and India will now need all their resolve and skill and plenty of luck, which they haven't had in the last two days, to stop them.

India didn't embarrass themselves in the field today, and indeed were at the rough end of a few umpiring decisions, but for the second day running, the Australian batting was awesome. It was Ricky Ponting's day, as indeed, it has been his year. He was troubled early by Ajit Agarkar and edged Ashish Nehra between the wicketkeeper and first slip - a difficult chance, but the kind that had the potential to turn the match - but after his early nerves were settled, he played an innings of control and ambition.

The Indians bowled with purpose and to their fields before lunch today when only 79 runs were conceded. The quick bowlers stuck to an offside line designed at denial and Anil Kumble, apart from two short balls, didn't give much away. But Ponting refused to be baited. He let innumerable balls go past his off stump, patted down many length balls and bided his time.

Anil Kumble kept things tight and picked wickets, but Ricky Ponting handled him patiently
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Even after lunch, when he looked to score at a faster clip, runs came with deft deflections behind square rather than the savage driving often associated with his batting. The pitch hasn't been as pacy as the curator promised, and Ponting was willing to wait for the ball rather than reach out for it. It was not until he had reached 190 that he ventured out to Kumble and he galloped to his double-hundred with two lofted boundaries. Patience hasn't been an ally for him in the past, but this innings was constructed on loads of it.

Marriage, he says, has stabilised him. It has stabilised him as a batsman too. His batting is no longer driven by wild passions. He is, by no stretch of imagination, an austere batsman, but the reckless ostentatiousness has been curbed, and a matured aggression has emerged. The Ponting of old was consumed by the fire within, and wouldn't yield to the voices of sense and reason. It brought about his demise against Harbhajan Singh in India in 2001 when he was hell-bent on sweeping when the circumstances demanded a safer method. The fire hasn't been completely doused, but it comes in measured bursts now rather than in an uncontrolled stream, and the civilised Ponting has been a far more dangerous batsman in the last 18 months than during any other time in his career.

Unbridled impetuosity has also been replaced by ambition. The new Ponting doesn't sell his talent short. His golden run this year isn't a happenstance, but the result of sustained, calculated brilliance. Ponting has set the bar high and has worked hard with the considerable means he has always possessed to reach where he has. The result has been astounding: 1472 runs at 98 with six centuries, including three doubles. Before today, there had been only seven instances of back-to-back double-hundreds in the history of Test cricket and when you consider that Don Bradman was involved in three of those, the enormity of Ponting's achievement comes to light.

His batsmanship awaits a final test before he can join the hallowed ranks of the truly great. That will come next September when he squares up against Harbhajan Singh, with his spinning finger hopefully restored, and Kumble on dusty and drying Indian wickets. If he can conquer that challenge, there will be no reason why his name can't sit alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara as the masters of the current age.

India would have considered themselves hard done by. From the evidence of the television camera, both Ponting and Hayden should have been out lbw before scoring their hundreds and Akash Chopra received a harsh caught-behind decision when the ball appeared to have flicked only the top of his pad. They now find themselves in the dreaded situation anticipated for them much earlier in the tour. The Indian Summer is all but about to turn grey.

Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.