Captain rises to the fore
Five years ago, another tussle for the ownership of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy started with considerable innuendo about the visiting captain being a weak link, one to be targeted by the home side's bowlers. Then, as now, the soft target turned out to a hard opponent and the tone for the series was set by his defiance. We don't yet know what sort of impact Ricky Ponting's 36th hundred will have on this game, but it's safe to say that those that doubted the calibre of one of the modern greats will be feeling a touch sheepish this evening.
Sourav Ganguly was the Indian captain in December 2003, the man whose legs would buckle at the mere mention of "chin music", the notes for which had been written by Jason Gillespie, Andy Bichel and others. Half a decade on, it was Ponting that was expected to go into a light-headed trance at the first glimpse of a certain turbaned offspinner.
At the Gabba, that most intimidating of Australian cricket fortresses, Ganguly drove and cut his way to a magnificent 135-ball century. There were short balls aplenty, but he bobbed and weaved out of harm's way like a nimble welterweight. Fast forward to the Chinnaswamy Stadium, and the fourth ball of the morning. Ponting had just reached the middle, having passed a visibly angry Matthew Hayden on the way. With the bulwark of his batting back in the dressing room after a contentious decision, the weight on Ponting's shoulders might have made Atlas wince. All he had to show for eight previous Tests in India was one innings of 60, and an unwanted reputation as Harbhajan Singh's bunny.
Though the pace bowlers gave next to nothing away, Anil Kumble didn't wait too long to play his ace of spades. Harbhajan was on as early as the 13th over, and the stadium started buzzing. The scoreboard reminded everyone that Harbhajan had dismissed Ponting eight times in Tests, five of them during that memorable series in 2001. A while later, it informed us that he had also fallen seven times to Kumble, who waited till the 18th over before bringing himself on.
Double-spin jeopardy then. Surely, Ponting would have no riposte. Turned out that he did, and multiple answers at that. Kumble was treated with a modicum of respect, and the harshest treatment saved for Harbhajan. You can't judge a spinner based on one day on a slow, low and comatose pitch, but there were at least three Ponting strokes that laid down the sort of marker that Ganguly had at the Gabba.
Early on, Harbhajan had a man stationed at short midwicket. Ponting waited till he was past 50 and then decided he had to go. Two thunderous lofted strokes down to the rope at deep midwicket made Kumble switch to a more conservative field that allowed easy singles, and a sublime cover drive then took him into the 90s. Like every great batsman who has played the game over the past 130 years, Ponting adapted to the situation. The hard-handed and confused player of seven years ago was gone, and India had no answer to the new prototype.
You also wondered just how much the retirement debates had affected the Indians. John Buchanan has spoken of how the prolonged Steve Waugh farewell affected Australia in the 2003-04 series that they were fortunate to draw, and it remains to be seen how both Indian selection and morale will be affected by the unending saga of tributes, rants, soundbites and asides.
As there usually is between these two sides, there was no shortage of drama or spirit. Kumble went from exasperation to frustration as catches were dropped and appeals turned down, while Harbhajan's sprint to the middle first thing in the morning revealed just how keyed up he was even in the absence of Andrew Symonds.
Fortunately though, there was no repeat of the malice or puerile behaviour that took the sheen off a terrific Test match in Sydney in January. When Ponting got to his century, there was applause from Dravid at slip and Ishant Sharma at square leg. The stakes may be impossibly high but true champions have the grace to acknowledge and appreciate their peers.