A sort of calenture - the tropical delirium that sweeps over far-from-home sailors, who imagine the seas to be green fields and desire to leap into them - has engulfed Australia's old captain. The ball comes, his feet move, the bat feels light and good in his hands. Pulls and hook shots spring off it, same as they ever did. He longs to leap, to wave his bat appreciatively at a crowd over the fence that's clapping - and these people are clapping - but out of the corners of their mouths, he sees, they are murmuring too.
Ricky Ponting is batting well. Ricky Ponting is batting odd. Consider Melbourne, most recent. In the first innings he fished out of his kitbag three main scoring strokes. Most reassuring, anytime a bowler wandered leg side, was the clip off his pads or hip, hit with a very old ruthlessness. Most dramatic was the pull/hook, this one hit seemingly at random, premeditated, sometimes from a wooden school ruler's distance outside off stump, and always with low, fast hands and his eyes fixed on the ball. The push-and-scamper for a single was Ponting's third scoring shot. Occasionally, in little clumps, something snapped; his 83rd ball, from offspinner Ravichandran Ashwin, provoked a sweep shot - a fissure in Ponting's memory - and 86th ball he swept again. Also, just once, with butterfly-soft wrists, he unfurled an on-drive - he was fielding at the time, an air shot, in imitation of a real shot Sachin Tendulkar had just played. Mostly Ponting stuck to his three shots and when all three seemed in working order there hung in the mid-afternoon a feeling of timelessness.
Between scoring shots in that first innings, Ponting let balls pass or blocked them. Sometimes after blocking he took a big exaggerated stride, or two strides, and froze in that pose. For the cameras? This was new. You noticed it. Ponting is batting great, it made you think, where once you'd just think: Ponting is batting. Think. The crowd's murmurs, a sound Ponting never used to hear, are making him think, something he once barely had to do. "I think," said Ponting, "some of the technical things I was working on were a little bit better this week."
The way he said that, it was as if a game's a game, just one game - which it is, and isn't. Usually a batsman bats twice. In the second innings Ponting hooked at nothing. He pulled a total of two singles. This was over the course of two-and-a-half hours' batting. In front of the wicket, he did the push-and-scamper for a single only three times.
Ponting's best scoring shot, this second innings, played pinball with the gully fieldsman - sending him sprawling left, grappling to the right, sometimes with a stiff-wristed steer, other times with a hammer swipe. Twice, Ponting climbed on tiptoes and jumped with his whole body into the shot. Forty thousand people were in on a blowy, blue-sky Wednesday. They didn't come specifically because this might be goodbye: there had been enough maybe-goodbyes for Ponting already, and a crowd can put itself through that wringer only so many times, it needs to cotton-wool emotions. Ponting - this second-innings Ponting - pleased them. He confused them.
"Between scoring shots, Ponting let balls pass or blocked them. Sometimes after blocking he took a big exaggerated stride, or two strides, and froze in that pose. For the cameras? This was new. You noticed it. Ponting is batting great, it made you think"
Next day he fielded. Something I'd never noticed before - Ponting standing, hands on hips, between deliveries. Then I watched him catch a ball that was tossed to him, hold it up, peer at the seam, rub it, start swivelling his arms around ready to growl out instructions, and then, no longer captain, stop swivelling them.
Ponting's two weirdly different innings had two elements, both curious, in common. First, he began them serenely - this despite, in the first innings, falling over three times (falling over didn't stop him scoring) and swinging, missing and getting sconed by an Umesh Yadav bumper (he swung and missed too fast, which is mere over-enthusiasm, not too slow, which implies old age). Second, he was prone, both times, to losing a bit of attentiveness and skating alarmingly out of form, whatever form is, for several-over intervals at a time. All this, when you threaded it together, was something curiouser than curious: it was uncharacteristic. Ponting, typically, never began innings serenely, not even his epic masterpieces of yore; and he never ever let his form lapse. Getting in - that was the trick. Once in, he was superglued in, and rain-dancing elephants couldn't shake him out.
After Ponting's first innings, a 62, a colossus of Australian cricket punditry squatted beside the MCG press box's automated tea urn. "Can't carry on a score," the colossus said. "Drop him. Selectors are in a time warp. It's beyond a joke." After Ponting's second innings, a 60, no one in earshot said anything like that. But Ponting knows a 62 and a 60 only buys him time. It doesn't buy him peace.
In cricket, you see, hundreds are the thing. People right now are mildly obsessed with Tendulkar hitting his hundredth "international" hundred - a figure arrived at by totting up his Test and one-day centuries. Tendulkar is currently marooned on 99 hundreds. Cross out hundreds struck against Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Namibia - all weakling attacks who many rational-minded cricket people would happily cross out - and he has only 81 hundreds. Does that make the mild obsession with 100 mildly irrational, or, at best, notional?
Maybe. But Ponting hasn't hit a hundred of the Test match variety in 718 days. Home must feel far away.
Funny game, cricket, with its preoccupation with round numerical landmarks, though there's more to it than that. Hundreds win matches. A couple of 60s would have won Ponting the tournament, were this golf, a game he loves. Golf's a game he may soon be playing a lot more of - soon, not yet.