Ponting searches for elusive Indian success
When India went to New Zealand last year, John Wright made a trip to the Bert Sutcliffe Oval, half an hour's drive from Christchurch, where the Indian team was training. He had short chats with some of his old wards. A visibly emotional Wright then said he missed India. "Once India gets under your skin, it's hard to get it out."
Of course Wright had a different sort of relationship with India, but Ricky Ponting wouldn't be too far off the mark if he feels the same on the eve of what could be his last Test in the country he has "never mastered". Except India hasn't quite got under Ponting's skin in the positive way: he averages 22.30 here, has scored just one century in 13 Tests, and hasn't won a Test here as captain.
"I feel like I have been coming to India all my cricketing life and in truth I have," he wrote in his column in the Australian. Having travelled here six times just for Tests since 1996, he actually has. Twelve years ago, on his second tour to India, he had to be shown out of a Kolkata night club against his will. He was the Tasmanian George Best in those years, as Malcolm Knox wrote of him.
Over his Test trips to India, we have seen Ponting grow as a cricketer, as a leader, and as a human being. He has grown immensely in stature as a batsman, perhaps second only to Don Bradman in Australia. He might not be the best tactician going around, but as a leader he has not shied away from responsibility. He has taken over a team that doesn't win nearly as often as what seemed like Ponting's birth right until 2006-07. He is risking becoming the first captain to lose the Ashes thrice. But he is there for the team that needs him and looks up to him.
India remains one of those unsuccessful battles. Ponting has toured India with a great team that fell at the last hurdle, and with a team that conquered the Final Frontier without him. He has had Harbhajan Singh torture him for entire tours. Equally, he has had a random man at a sponsor function try to kiss him. He has started his two previous tours looking like he would finally "master" the place, but the box remains unticked.
Like with captaincy of late, Ponting retains the enthusiasm for India. "I have always enjoyed playing cricket here, although I haven't had the success here that I have had in other countries," he said. "It's always been a great place to play Test cricket as far as I am concerned. The Australian team has always enjoyed every contest we have had here, and we always enjoy our team around the country outside of the cricket venues."
As far as hurt goes, Ponting rates the defeat in Mohali last week more painful than what happened in Kolkata in 2000-01. Perhaps more so than what happened in Kolkata in 1998. Soon after that Kolkata mishap, Ponting came to Bangalore, and was part of a winning team. This year, with a team he wants to shape as his legacy, Ponting returns to Bangalore, hoping for a similar result to ease the pain of a devastating defeat. Bangalore, in fact, has been Australia's most favoured venue in India: they are yet to lose a Test here. Ponting's only century in India has come here. An oasis in the middle of the desert that India has been for Ponting.
The task that Ponting faces now is immense. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy is already gone, and the way it went doesn't make it easy for a team to bounce back. It will take plenty of character to achieve that. "This just goes to show unless you are ready to play cricket very, very well for five days sometimes you don't achieve the result you are after," Ponting said. It might take four very, very good days of good cricket to get back to a similar position.
It will apply to the captain too. A pretty 71 might not be good enough, he will know. At least he is not putting pressure on himself thinking this could be his last Test here. "I haven't thought about that if this is going to be my last Test or not," he said. "Hopefully this is not my last tour, as it turns out we are in India almost every year. I still believe I have got a few more years of international cricket ahead of me and hopefully that means I will be back to India for another Test tour."
That said, there are no guarantees either. At least for now, Australia are not playing Tests here next year. If he doesn't come back, though, it will be a shame if India doesn't get to see one of the best batsmen of this era at his best.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo