India v Australia, 1st Test, Bangalore, 1st day October 9, 2008

Filling a hole

Ali Cook
Before the game he owned 172 runs in eight Tests in the country; he walked off 49 short of doubling the total


Until now India has been kryptonite for a batting superman with 10,000 runs and more centuries than anyone but Sachin Tendulkar © Getty Images
 

Birds of prey swirled over and around Ricky Ponting when he walked out to face the fourth ball of the morning. While the kites soared and dive-bombed, their shadows hit the ground and bounced like the butterflies in Ponting's stomach, adding to the grand entrance of a man trying to avoid another failed hunt in India.

Up in the stands the home supporters wanted a Ponting carcass and the feeling seemed the same in the sky. By the time he had posted his half-century with a wonderful cover drive most of the birds, with sharp beaks and scratchy talons, had gone looking for an easier target. Finally the real Ponting had arrived in India.

From the moment he started the innings with a series of confident leaves he was no longer the heavy-footed impostor that had suffered in 1996, 1998, 2001 and, briefly, in 2004. Until now India has been kryptonite for a batting superman with 10,000 runs and more centuries than anyone but Sachin Tendulkar. Instead of being welcomed like a hero he was being scanned for his weakness.

Matthew Hayden's first-over departure actually helped his captain, ensuring he would avoid an early rendezvous with his tormentor Harbhajan Singh. It was too early to call for the Harbhajan hex and Ponting was able to settle into his innings like he normally does - against fast bowling. Strong, secure and certain, he eased through Ishant Sharma's testing early spell, gaining more confidence with strong drives through cover and a commanding pull shot. Now he understood the conditions and knew his form was strong.

When Harbhajan was called Ponting was ready, pushing back to deflect the first ball to fine leg for four. The initial delivery has always been the hardest for Ponting to conquer and as it bobbled along the outfield there was relief for Australia. In less than a minute Harbhajan was just another spinner. Seven years of hypnosis had finished.

Softer hands, sharper feet and a mind more focused on a simpler game-plan were responsible for the longer stay. As he neared his century more of the kites flapped back for another look. Ponting, still a great in any kingdom, is always worth watching.

After tea he off-drove Kumble for four to move to 99 before delicately pushing him behind point for a well-run three. Throughout the innings Ponting had swung his bat freely and, usually, effortlessly. This time he heaved the blade through the air then lifted both arms and pumped them. The weight of a foreign nation was no longer there.

 
 
When Harbhajan was called Ponting was ready, pushing back to deflect the first ball to fine leg for four. The initial delivery has always been the hardest for Ponting to conquer and as it bobbled along the outfield there was relief for Australia. In less than a minute Harbhajan was just another spinner
 
The day wore on and Ponting grew weary. It was warm and humid and extra drinks came his way, but he had a lot of catching up to do. Before the game he owned 172 runs in eight Tests in the country; he walked off 49 short of doubling the total.

Of course the match situation was also vital. He is carrying a young team and protected them from an exacting first day. It was crucial that Ponting and Simon Katich, half of the players in this squad with previous Test experience in India, were the pillars of the innings. By steering his side to 254 for 4, Ponting has eased the immediate expectations on Australia's novice middle of Shane Watson, Brad Haddin and debutant Cameron White.

Usually he swears the milestones mean nothing, but even he could not pretend this wasn't significant. Century No. 36 will always stand out because it filled the only hole in a wonderful batting career. As the kites continued their salutes it was India who were in a flap.