Ponting pulls his way out of trouble
Time was when a Ricky Ponting pull was the central symbol of Australia's dominance and the root cause of an opposition's misery. His pulls were not brutal as, say, a West Indian one might have been in the 80s, but they were as emphatic. In a very different way they were just as good to look at, for the straightness of the lines he drew with his movement.
Everything about the shot rubbed it in. Ponting's movements when batting have always been so decisive, be it the forward lunge or the early backlift, and the pull is no different. The sound of the ball hitting the bat was enough to kill most bowlers; so clean, so middled and just so pulled. If bouncers were door-to-door salesmen, Ponting's pull would be the door firmly shut on their face.
He could hit it in front of square or behind it; up high or along the ground, rolling his wrists to keep it down. But he has always pulled. Michael Clarke reckoned, probably only half in jest, that the one shot has got him 6000 of his Test runs. It is the way Ponting and the Australian team is - no backward step ever taken.
"The fast bowler is testing your courage and your speed of reaction and you are trying to hit him either to, or over the boundary," Viv Richards said of the hook once. "You are telling the bully with the ball that you are not scared of anything he can send down at you."
The inverse applies now. The batsman is the bully and to pull is to be strong. But the heart of the matter with pulling is that as a stroke, it is mostly a consequence of ego. Despite all the talk this summer about Ponting's susceptibility to the shot, this has fundamentally remained the same. Instinct, which Ponting says drives his pulling, is simply a part of that.
Since being hit by Kemar Roach attempting one, Ponting has seemed doubly keen on pulling whatever came his way. He has talked about it almost as much as he has done it. "Keep bowling short to me and I'll keep pulling," he has said often. Twice against Pakistan, he pulled and paid the price. When he did it first ball at Sydney, it seemed purely out of conceit.
For the first thirty runs of his innings today, Ponting lived off it, pulling relentlessly, trying to prove a point. He should have been out fourth ball doing it of course but such are the gifts Pakistan bring with them. Caution was absent from Ponting's approach, for that is also weakness. He carried on pulling and doing it poorly; one hit him flush on the helmet, a couple got the bottom edge of his bat, he jerked his head away a few times, got on top of them rarely. He ducked just once. At that moment, Ponting's shakiness with pulling seemed emblematic of Australia's decline over the last two years.
Perhaps it is the years - and reflexes - and perhaps it is nothing, just one of those freakish phases batsmen, bowlers and cricket is replete with.
Mostly today he was early on the shots rather than late, a result he said, of a surface that was holding up the ball. And it isn't as if he has been succumbing to the pull consistently. He's been dismissed twice driving loosely too in this series, though no one seems to worry about that much.
"I don't look at it as being a statement," he said. "It's just one of those shots that comes more naturally to me than it does to most. It's a lot to do with the way I pick the bat up and the way my foot movements are, is the reason I play the shot as much and as often as I do."
Fortunately Ponting's genius is of many shades and resilient, even if in the last few years it has begun to fade. At various stages Danish Kaneria and Mohammad Asif asked him questions and though he stuttered, he answered back. Once he had survived a tricky path to fifty - only his third in 10 innings - the day was his.
Thereafter he drove and swept and punched through covers off the back foot as if the summer and the last three years had never happened. There were even a couple of proper pulls, more controlled and played as if he knew he needn't really have done it, but did so to merely prove a point.
A first hundred in 16 innings, a second on his nominal home ground seemed inevitable after the fifty, though Pakistan-watchers sensed it the moment he was dropped on zero. The last two pulls he played for the day rolled the years back, as he kept his eyes on the ball and rolled his wrists over them to bisect two fielders in the deep.
"The bottom line with me is if I can't stop playing it, I've just got to play it better. I've played it well through my career and it has brought me a lot of runs," he said. Bowlers will keep bowling it to him, but they are stubborn beasts anyway. The debate is closed for now, but rest assured it will be revisited in time to come.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo