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October 9, 2008
Ricky Ponting erased 12 years of doubt over his record in India by striking a defiant century that gave Australia a marginal edge on the opening day in Bangalore. However, a late pair of wickets - Ponting departed for 123 and Zaheer Khan removed Michael Clarke in the final over - brought India back into the contest on what had until then been a frustrating day for the hosts. At the close Australia had reached 254 for 4 with Michael Hussey unbeaten on 46.
Zaheer's final strike - he trapped Clarke plumb lbw for 11 - gave India's fans cause to cheer on the first day of Test cricket in the country since the frenetic and colourful IPL. The contrast between the game's longest and shortest formats was stark as Australia's batsmen spent most of the day grinding down the India bowlers.
The man most responsible for the tough contest was Ponting, who in the lead-up declared that it was up to him to set the batting standard for Australia despite his disappointing average of 12.28 in his eight previous Tests in India. Australia's two most unflappable batsmen, Simon Katich and Michael Hussey, gave Ponting exactly the support he needed as he began to master his long-time tormentor Harbhajan Singh and his newer nemesis Ishant Sharma.
The two men bowled admirably and created opportunities but the pitch offered them little assistance. When Harbhajan finally picked up Ponting, lbw attempting to sweep a ball that might have missed leg stump, it came as a major relief to India, who had seen a few doses of luck go the other way throughout the day.
Katich and Hussey both prodded within centimetres of short leg against the spinners. Hussey got a thick outside edge off Kumble that Mahendra Singh Dhoni could not get his gloves to in time. Ponting survived a couple of tight lbw calls early and, after he had reached triple figures, was reprieved when replays suggested he was caught and bowled by Kumble off a delivery that was adjudged to be a bump ball.
But nothing should take away from Ponting's brilliance. Rarely can a 33-year-old veteran of more than 100 Tests claim to make a genuine career breakthrough, but Ponting's history in India was so poor that his century was exactly that.
The 2008-09 version of Ponting was more patient and less tentative than on his earlier trips. Until this innings, Harbhajan had an undeniable hold over Ponting and had dismissed him eight times in Tests. But Ponting watched the ball more closely this time and eliminated his bad habit of lunging outside off stump, a custom that had brought so many edges to Harbhajan over the years.
Instead, he trusted his judgement. He left the ball where appropriate and picked the right deliveries to hit; he twice lofted Harbhajan over wide midwicket for four. He also survived his mini-battles with Ishant, whose steepling bounce and tendency to jag the ball in had troubled Ponting earlier this year.
A couple of cracking back-foot drives through extra cover off Ishant were particularly impressive, as was the slap through cover off Zaheer that brought up his half-century. When the hundred arrived with a cut through point off Kumble, Ponting refused to smile, instead willing himself to go on with the innings.
The burden on Ponting would have increased considerably had he been regularly losing partners. Katich's determination was therefore a godsend for the captain. Katich was also under pressure to justify his selection after he was preferred over the incumbent Phil Jaques as Matthew Hayden's opening partner.
His experience and composure provided a calming influence on Ponting, who had joined him in the first over of the match following Hayden's early departure. Katich handled the first 15 deliveries from Harbhajan, which allowed Ponting time to get a look at his major danger without having to face up.
Katich was scratchy in the opening hour but as his confidence grew he worked easy runs through the leg side via his habit of walking across the stumps. His half-century came from 122 deliveries with a boundary forward of point off Harbhajan and it was the sort of watchful innings that made it hard to believe he had scored 184 in a single first-class session for New South Wales last season.
His stand with Ponting was worth 166 when Katich's concentration finally waned on 66 as he edged behind when Ishant seamed the ball away. It was a well-deserved reward for Ishant, who tried valiantly to extract anything from the benign surface. Nearly two full sessions had passed since India had had any reason to celebrate after Zaheer struck with the third ball of the match.
Hayden was given out caught behind off a Zaheer outswinger, although the ball appeared to miss the outside edge as bat hit pad. It was the perfect start for India, who had lost the toss and were staring at a long Australia batting order with the debutant and powerful striker Cameron White listed at No. 8.
The rest of the wickets did not come as swiftly. But India can be happy with their fightback after Ponting and Katich threatened to bat them into the ground. The first day has set up an intriguing battle; the second day could well be one of the most decisive of the series.
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