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Right through his career, bowlers have fancied getting him out LBW with the full and straight delivery early in his innings. Their tactic usually backfired, for his head and feet would align themselves perfectly to punish this line of attack. But when India arrived in Australia, his eye seemed to have lost its sharpness. The balance wasn’t quite there. The full and straight method was working with absurd ease. In his last seven innings, he had been LBW five times.
Early on in his first innings of the Test series, there seemed to be no way out of this rut. The second ball he faced at the MCG, delivered by Umesh Yadav, struck him on his right bicep and deflected into the side of his neck, just under his helmet grill. He had gone too early into his pull.
Two balls later, Umesh bowled one full and straight. The leaning tower tipped over, and Ponting somehow got his bat down on it as he stumbled and scrambled back up to complete a single. It wasn’t the last time that Ponting would have to pick himself up off the floor during the series. But the next time was at the non-striker’s end in Sydney, after diving headlong into the crease to complete the single that brought him his first century in nearly two years. Between the two falls, he had made 222 runs in three innings (one of them still in progress) with a lowest score of 60. The darkest days were over. It helped that Ponting’s failings were so easy to identify. On Wednesday, he revealed that he had to rework a couple of aspects of his game more or less completely to get out of his trough.
Always a first time
“It was all about my initial movement and my balance. They’re the only things I’ve been working on really for the last few months,” Ponting said. “I’ve done a few different drills that I’ve incorporated into my game now that I’ve never had to do before. I was in probably a rut technically that I hadn’t been in right through my career. I had to have a really close look at things and break things down and try to find the best and simplest way to address it.”
It took time, but the balance and sureness of foot are back. The initial forward press hasn’t disappeared, but there seems to be a nimbleness to it that allows him to adjust to late movement. The head, more importantly, has stayed steadfastly over the line of the ball, rather than thrusting beyond it.
But in his three knocks in the first two Tests, Ponting wasn’t quite the Ponting of old. The old air of arrogance wasn’t present in his drives down the wicket and his pulls off the front foot. In fact, he barely played these strokes at all.
During his 134 at the SCG, Ponting scored the majority of his runs, 97 of them, through the leg side, a lot of them in ones and twos through fine tucks off his hips against the pacemen and controlled flicks and sweeps off the spinners. The pull he played often, but not in the manner of old, where he would slap the ball well in front of him. Now, he was waiting on the ball and using the pace to help it to deep square leg or fine leg.
Through the off side, he was driving with a checked follow-through, often just meeting the ball and putting it away into a gap for a single or double. Short balls he rode on tiptoe, pushing them either side of point.
While not the ‘grinder’ that Zaheer Khan said he’d become, Ponting was certainly not the dominant force of old. But then, he might not even have regained his touch fully. “I’m not sitting here saying that I’m completely on top of my game,” Ponting said, “but I know very well that I’m not far off.”