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November 23, 2006
Ricky Ponting launched his quest for Ashes vengeance with a brilliant unbeaten 137, as Australia piled on the runs on the opening day of first Test at the Gabba. Ponting, whose reputation as captain rests entirely on his success in this campaign, produced a flawless innings from first ball to last, as England's bowlers wilted in the baking Queensland heat.
It was more than just an innings from Ponting, it was a declaration of intent. This was his 10th Test hundred in just 15 Tests dating back to that epic 156 at Old Trafford, but whereas that innings had helped sustain the tension of the 2005 Ashes, this performance was conceived with the absolute opposite purpose. Fed up with the stigma of being Australia's Ashes-losing captain, he set out to crush any semblance of a competition. It was as if every one of his innings since that moment had been mere dress-rehearsals for today.
Ponting's innings was scripted to perfection from the moment he won the toss and chose to bat first. That particular blow to England's morale was not as acute as it had been on this ground four years ago, when Nasser Hussain opted to bowl and was met, then as now, by Ponting's crashing blade. But as word filtered out that Ashley Giles had been selected as England's spinner ahead of the more attacking Monty Panesar, a packed and patriotic Gabba began to feast on England's negativity.
In particular they feasted on Steve Harmison. After all the hype and all the hoopla, the official presentations, national anthems and assorted paraphernalia, Harmison's first delivery of the 2006-07 Ashes was the ultimate anticlimax - a massive wide that was fielded at second slip to guffaws from the stands. So much expectation - too much expectation - had been heaped on his shoulders, but this was a moment to rank alongside Phil DeFreitas's long-hop to Michael Slater on this ground way back in 1994-95.
Then, as now, it pricked the bubble of anticipation, and provided Justin Langer - whom Harmison had given such a working-over at Lord's on the last opening morning - the ideal sighter to settle his nerves. This may have been Langer's 101st Test match, but his 100th, at Johannesburg back in April, lasted precisely one vicious delivery from Makhaya Ntini. Instead, Harmison's nervy two-over spell was dispatched for 17 runs, mostly crashed behind square on the off-side, to set the tone for an ominously one-sided first day.
Inevitably it was the captain who hauled England back into contention. Flintoff's first over had not been laced with stardust - two no-balls and an awful overthrow from James Anderson were the highlights. But then he found some extra bounce outside off stump to kiss the edge of Matthew Hayden's bat, and Paul Collingwood claimed a comfortable chest-high catch in his first match as England's second slip. Hayden was gone for 21, a solid enough innings but one that was a far cry from his bullying brilliance of four years ago.
That dismissal, however, brought Ponting to the crease and at 79 for 1, with one captain facing up to the other, the Ashes had truly begun. Ponting started watchfully, needing 10 deliveries to get off the mark, but when he did it was with two shots of pure class and confidence - a full-blooded pull and a back-foot steer off Harmison, who had been recalled to the attack to inflict another of his Lord's duelling scars, but instead had his own figures lacerated.
Harmison's malaise spread to the rest of England's seamers. Matthew Hoggard was unable to swing the Kookaburra ball and was milked out of the attack, while Anderson - in a reprise of his nightmarish performance at Johannesburg two winters ago - was clattered for 13 fours in 15 overs. He was twice entrusted with the first over of a session, and twice he failed to live up to the task, conceding nine runs straight after lunch and tea. That didn't however stop Flintoff trusting him with the new ball late in the day, with predictable results.
Langer was particularly harsh on Anderson's waywardness, and he seemed a shoo-in for his 23rd Test century when, on 82, he swatted a wide one from Flintoff to Kevin Pietersen at point, and swished his bat in annoyance as he left. But the damage to England's psyche had already been done. In the absence of any cutting edge, England desperately needed a steadying influence, and lo and behold, it was the maligned Giles who provided in his first first-class match for exactly 12 months.
Steady as ever, he found some extra bounce and bite outside off stump to surprise Damien Martyn as he shaped for a cut and conceded just 51 runs from his 18 overs. But by the close, the almost unnoticed Mike Hussey had nudged and shimmied his way to an unbeaten 63.
It was Ponting's day, however. By stumps he was level with Steve Waugh as Australia's leading century maker (32) and needed just 71 more runs to reach 9000 runs in Tests. He is destined to break every record in the book. But, and it is a big but, if he fails to win this series as captain, he is destined to be judged as a failure. On today's evidence, it'll be over his dead body.
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