Sublime Ponting punishes West Indies
Australia 301 for 4 (Ponting 158, Hussey 56, Hodge 53*, Edwards 2-56) v West Indies
Scorecard and ball-by-ball commentary
Ricky Ponting said in the lead-up to the first Test that Australia, the No. 1-ranked team in the world, would show no mercy against West Indies, who are in eighth position. It took only one day of the series for Ponting to put his words into action as he scored 158, his 35th Test century, to guide Australia to an excellent position at stumps at Sabina Park. The visitors reached 301 for 4 with Brad Hodge on 53 and the nightwatchman Mitchell Johnson on 1.
Only a screamer of a catch at the end of the day could halt Ponting's progress; he made good contact with a pull off a Dwayne Bravo bouncer and the diving Brenton Parchment at midwicket snared the chance in his right hand, at full stretch. It ended a 119-run stand between Ponting and Hodge, which was an excellent effort on a pitch offering variable bounce, and gave West Indies' stand-in captain Ramnaresh Sarwan some relief on a day when his bowlers struggled for penetration. It is no consolation to Sarwan, but it is hard to imagine any world attack posing major threats to Ponting in this sort of touch.
He finished the innings 66 runs short of the magical 10,000 figure, and also moved past Sunil Gavaskar and Brian Lara on the list of century-makers to sit behind only Sachin Tendulkar, who has 39. It was Ponting's second consecutive Test ton after he made 140 against India in Adelaide, although the word "consecutive" loses its meaning slightly when the events are four months apart. What would please Australia most is the way he scored the runs.
He came to the crease in a delicate situation after Fidel Edwards dismantled Australia's new opening combination and left them at 37 for 2. Ponting was coming off a below-par home summer and he was not one of Australia's best in the tour match against the Jamaica Select XI, but he immediately looked dangerous when he replaced Simon Katich, the makeshift opener, who fell for 12.
Ponting was quick on his feet and with his reactions, which he showed when he rocked back to pull a short ball from Bravo only for it to surprise him with a lack of bounce. He was seeing the ball so well he adjusted magnificently and whipped it at thigh height backward of square for a boundary. He cover-drove superbly for four when Daren Powell was too full and swinging away, and hammered Bravo with a vicious back-foot drive that ran so square it traced the line of the extended crease. He combined with Michael Hussey for an invaluable 137-run stand after the opening blows and while Hussey was scratchy, Ponting was as free-flowing as he has ever been.
His hundred came from 137 balls - roughly the same number it took Hussey to reach his half-century - and there was barely a false stroke among them. Late in the day when the fast men were tiring and the debutant offspinner Amit Jaggernauth was losing confidence, Ponting was almost batting on auto-pilot. Jaggernauth, who earlier was keen to attack the stumps and toss the ball up, took a more defensive around-the-wicket line and found himself being swept high over midwicket for six by Ponting.
By that stage Ponting had Hodge at his side but in the first session, when danger was still lurking for the tourists, it was Hussey who helped steady the situation. Whereas the captain was in full flight, the deputy had to be patient.
Only when Jaggernauth came on did Hussey find some fluency. His first boundary, a pull through midwicket when Jaggernauth dropped short, came from his 101st delivery. But the spinner had his revenge when he made Hussey his first Test victim just when the batsman was finding some momentum and had reached 56. Jaggernauth came around the wicket and squared up Hussey, who edged between the wicketkeeper and first slip, Bravo, who was moving to his left and suddenly dived back to his right to complete a brilliant one-handed catch.
But without their most in-form strike bowler Jerome Taylor, who was a late withdrawal with a back injury, West Indies were unable to build pressure from both ends. Hodge, who was playing his first Test since January 2006, was allowed to get off the mark with a short and wide ball from Powell that was cut viciously to the point boundary, and he followed with a sweetly timed on-drive from a Powell half-volley. He continued in the same vein and brought up his half-century just before stumps with an excellent pull for six off Jaggernauth.
Hodge has travelled far and wide for his cricket this year and described himself as a "human ping-pong ball" as he flew from Australia to England to play for Lancashire, then to Kolkata to take part in the Indian Premier League, then to the Caribbean as a back-up player when Michael Clarke was given compassionate leave. Clarke's absence and an achilles tendon injury to Matthew Hayden robbed the evolving squad of two of its most stable elements.
Like a puzzler flummoxed by a diabolical sudoku, Australia's selection panel spent the days leading up to this Test working in pencil with eraser at hand, rearranging numbers until their solution looked vaguely plausible. The result was that Katich, who would have replaced Clarke at No. 5, opened and Hodge slotted into No. 5. If the Hodge part of the equation appeared to add up correctly, the Katich portion on this occasion did not.
Opening in Tests for the first time, Katich's return after two-and-a-half years out of the Test team was brief and eventful. He edged Edwards behind first delivery and survived only because the ball dropped marginally short of Denesh Ramdin. He had moved quickly to 12 but was struggling with his footwork and flashed at a half-volley outside off, getting a thickish edge on the up to Darren Sammy at gully.
Edwards followed by having Phil Jaques trapped lbw for 9, walking across his stumps, and it was a strong start after Ponting decided to bat on a pitch with green tinges at one end. The West Indies fast men didn't find much movement early - there was some reverse-swing late in the day - although a couple of Edwards pearlers swung away a fraction and beat Ponting's bat. But they missed Taylor and on a pitch that will wear and crack as the match progresses, West Indies would have hoped for a more incisive first day.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo