Captain rises to the fore
It's safe to say that those that doubted the calibre of Ricky Ponting will be feeling a touch sheepish this evening
The past is history: Ricky Ponting will be a relieved man after his first Test century in India
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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
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.