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October 6, 2008
It has been twelve years since Ricky Ponting first landed in India to play a Test. Four visits, eight Tests and an average of 12.28. Ponting failed in the one-off in 1996, in 1998 against Anil Kumble and Venkatapathy Raju but the ambush by Harbhajan Singh in 2001 is what really haunts him.
"That first dismissal in the first Test was where it all started for me," Ponting said in Hyderabad. Tellingly, it was Harbhajan's first delivery to Ponting in Test cricket. The ball looped, gripped, and turned in viciously. Ponting, on 0, lunged to defend but the ball lobbed off the bat and pad to short leg.
It was the beginning of the end for him. "I was always trying to find a different way to play, fearing that one delivery I guess," he said. In the second Test, he fell playing off the back foot in the first innings and attempting to sweep in the second. In the final Test he returned to those signature fatal lunges. Ponting's humiliation was total; Harbhajan had taken him out five times in five innings in the series.
It was time for introspection. "The reason for my poor performance was that I didn't trust myself; I didn't trust my technique," Ponting said. "I ended up getting stumped, caught at bat-pad sweeping. I tried almost everything and nothing worked. Every time I tried something, I got out pretty soon after. They are the lessons to be learnt I guess from coming here." In 2004 his failure in the only game he played can be discounted as it came on a devilish spin track in Mumbai.
Having burnt his fingers trying various options, Ponting said he was going to stick to one game plan this time. "I have spoken to a lot of guys this week about working out a style of playing you think is going to work for you ... and when you have worked it out, making sure you stick to it. Even if you do get out a couple of times early, you know that if you stick to those things that have worked for you in the past, some will go your way and you will end up scoring some runs. I have to be strong and stick to what I know is going to work."
The Hyderabad tour game, in specific Ponting's practice routine in the nets, offered some clues to his thought process. He was seen getting outside the line of the turning ball by taking an off-stump guard against the offspinners as a possible preparation for Harbhajan. His record against Harbhajan is awful: eight dismissals from nine games at 9.50. The worst bit about that stat is it includes games in Australia. Harbhajan knows he owns Ponting. When asked about the secret of his stranglehold, Harbhajan recently said, "He hasn't batted for long enough against me, so I don't know."
|The reason for my poor performance was that I didn't trust myself; I didn't trust my technique. I ended up getting stumped, caught at bat-pad sweeping. I almost tried everything and nothing worked. Every time I tried something, I got out pretty soon afterRicky Ponting on his travails in India|
Ponting searches for his own repartee. "Sri Lanka is probably the hardest spinning condition to play in. I have got a record there, as good as anybody, and against a set of bowlers a whole lot more skilled than Harbhajan might be."
He maintains his travails against Harbhajan were not "much of a mental thing". The problem, according to him, is the first 10-15 minutes against spin. "That's the challenging period. When you look at it, whenever I have got out to spin, it has been very early on. He has obviously had a very good run against me. He did that in the 2001 series and even back in Australia in the last series, he got me out three times in the Test series."
What gives him confidence that he can succeed this time? Ponting is drawing self-belief from his improved technique after his duels with Muttiah Muralitharan and sessions with India's former coach Greg Chappell. "It's about getting through that initial period. I feel like I have got the technique now to get through that," he said. "My record everywhere else is great. I have enjoyed having Greg Chappell around. He's obviously a great player in his own right and a very good coach.
"I discussed a few different things with him, as most of our batters probably have. They are the little things that you need here. Sometimes, it's just the real fine-tuning sort of thing that you might need with your technique to do well. One of our strengths is that a lot of our batsmen, in particular, talk amongst themselves about little things they might do, techniques they might use in different conditions. I am in good shape."
Ponting is desperate to remove the Indian spin asterisk from his career record. "It means a lot to me to do well here. I haven't done well here in the past. So I guess it's my turn now, my time now to stand up and make sure I am scoring some runs. I have had pretty much six weeks without any batting at all, trying to get over this wrist injury and it has come along pretty well. I just have to keep working hard and push myself and everything will then look after itself." Ponting's greatest test of character begins this Thursday and will run through this month. It is the battle of the series.
Plays of the Day from second ODI between South Africa and Pakistan, in Port Elizabeth