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Alex Brown in Cardiff
July 9, 2009
This is what comes naturally to Ricky Ponting. The feet, the eyes, the hands working in tandem, the head conning the nerves into believing that the weight of a nation - two of them, actually - isn't upon him. Crisp pivot-pulls, elegant drives, and, just as crucially, judicious shouldering of arms and redoubtable defence. This is the timeless wonder that is Ponting at the crease; the phenomenon who, on Thursday, became just the fourth man to surpass 11,000 career runs in Test cricket.
It was this instinctive side that allowed Ponting to compensate for that which does not come so naturally. As a leader, Ponting has encountered his share of critics over the past six years, and the horde was in full voice at Sophia Gardens after a first session in which England's tail milked 99 runs to advance their first innings total to an authoritative 435.
Questionable bowling plans, defensive fields and a general lack of aggression all played into the free-swinging hands of Graeme Swann and James Anderson on the second morning, prompting a reloading of slings and a sharpening of arrows in Ponting's direction. True, the captain could not be held responsible for the errant line of Peter Siddle nor the short length of Mitchell Johnson, but neither was he effective in containing a situation that spiralled out of control faster than a bad day at Lehman Brothers.
Some leaders are born. Ponting was manufactured. That is not to say that over time he has not become a capable captain - Test series victories in South Africa are never to be sneezed at, and particularly so with an inexperienced squad - but seldom has Ponting convinced his public that he is cut from the same intuitive cloth as the Borders, Taylors and Waughs.
No such questions have been asked of his batting, however. Ordained from a young age by Rod Marsh, the coach at Australia's cricket academy at the time, Ponting has fulfilled every prophecy, exceeded every expectation placed upon him as a batsman. By the end of this series, he will almost certainly have usurped Allan Border as Australia's all-time leading run-scorer, and given further credence to the "best since Bradman" tag bestowed on him by his countrymen. His is a greateness that transcends eras.
So it was on Thursday that Ponting, the batsman, came to the rescue of Ponting, the captain. Following a forgettable morning at the helm of an indisciplined fielding side, Ponting arrived at the crease in the midst of furious, intimidating spells from Andrew Flintoff and Stuart Broad. Those negotiated, he then set about the task of hauling in the runs conceded in the morning session, and laying the foundations for Australia's Ashes defence.
It has been an innings of tremendous class, and one which cannot be overstated in terms of its importance to the man, the team and the series. On a slow, holding pitch, Ponting adapted his game perfectly: waiting, watching, playing the ball under his eyes, never reaching. Suggestions his 34-year-old reflexes were failing him were dismissed with each swivel-pull stroke, and his shot selection on-and-around off-stump was beyond reproach. He may have played better innings but, against the backdrop of 2005, few will have been as satisfying.
Nerves were only evident when Ponting reached the 90s and the clock approached 6pm. Eager to avoid a night of insomnia, Ponting flayed and prodded in the shadows of Sophia Gardens, before eventually reaching his century - his 38th overall and eighth in Ashes contests - from Flintoff's penultimate ball of the day. The stroke was greeted with a triumphant sprint and a wave of the bat to all four corners of Sophia Gardens. The mission to atone for 2005 had commenced.