James Lawton: Ponting dons the mantle of Bradman with total authority

When he fell, even the Barmy Army were stunned momentarily
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The Independent Online

Here in this graceful cathedral city, whose hauntingly beautiful cricket ground Sir Donald Bradman made his spiritual home, a modern heresy has to be addressed, finally and unequivocally.

It is the one that says that in some vital respects the Australian captain Ricky Ponting may be nothing less than the reincarnation of the greatest batsman the world has ever seen. Long-retired colonels and rear-admirals who, as young men, clapped the Don through the Long Room when he was making his final tour of England in 1948 will no doubt be displeased, and here in his homeland some ancient cricket aficionados are certainly growling at the idea, but on the third day of an increasingly intriguing second Test this mattered a lot less than the evidence of your own eyes.

The conclusion is in-escapable. The heretics may just be right.

Different times, different demands, and utterly different men, no doubt, but over the last few days Ponting has linked himself to Bradman in a way that has become unprecedented.

Yesterday he was caught in a paroxysm of rage when he surrendered his wicket for a mere 142 runs.

A week earlier we saw the same scene at the Gabba, when he went for 196, an awesome prelude to the brisk, undefeated 60 he knocked up in the second innings. Staggeringly, this is just a molehill of statistics when you set it amid the torrent of Test runs he has compiled in 2006. He has amassed 1,200 in 11 innings in eight Tests at an average of 109.1. After his latest epic - which stretched over five hours and 53 minutes and was no doubt the main, if not only, reason why Andrew Flintoff's England are not already celebrating a superb comeback victory in a series that seemed already to be over a few days ago - Ponting was emphatic.

"I don't think about statistics, mate, I wasn't worried about that when I was out - I was just thinking that we needed to get through that second new ball. I had been talking to Mike Hussey out there about it most of the day - we had to get back into this game, we had to see off that new ball."

It is no doubt true that, as a strategist, most of Australia wouldn't put Ponting in remotely the same league as such subtle and abrasive warriors as Allan Border, Ian Chappell and Steve Waugh, whose record of 32 centuries for Australia was passed here when the current captain ran a brisk single off his hard-driving rival Flintoff. Ponting is widely blamed for the loss of the Ashes in England and maybe it is this that is driving him to such astonishing levels of personal commitment - and consistency.

But history will not delve into the motivation which turned Ponting, a young man of ferocious habits in both the bars and the betting windows, into someone who at 31 is poised to shatter every record of batsmanship. It will simply record the pace of his assault on the mountain top, one which leaves him just two centuries away from the peak achieved by the Indian maestro Sachin Tendulkar, who leads his legendary compatriot Sunil Gavaskar and West Indies' Brian Lara by one. Many believe that Tendulkar is a burnt-out case, a condition for which Lara has frequently been diagnosed in between bouts of coruscating brilliance. By contrast, Ponting's impact when he goes to the crease is more even - and volcanic.

When he overcame the self-disgust which accompanied the snick off England's hero Matthew Hoggard into the gloves of Geraint Jones, Ponting managed a wry smile and admitted that when he finally puts away his bat he may well linger a little over the great days of run accumulation. "Yes, I suppose I'll look back with a lot of pleasure," he said. "I think that's true of a lot of old players - but not now. That's not my priority for some time. At the moment there is only one. It is winning back the Ashes."

Among his awestruck admirers is the former Australia captain Kim Hughes, who says: "Ponting is a magnificent player and he will end up with more than 50 Test centuries. He already has 33 and he will surely play for another five or six years, scoring three or four centuries a year minimum. He will end up with more runs in centuries than I did in my whole career."

It is against this growing aura of just one of their opponents that you have to weigh the scale of England's achievement over the first three days of this Test match - and the level of the regret that faced Ashley Giles and Paul Collingwood, the double-century hero of Saturday, when they went to their beds knowing they had let slip the greatest single scalp in the game. Giles dropped Ponting when he was on 35 and just 11 runs later the usually deadly Collingwood missed what normally would have been an easy target when the Australian captain scrambled to get home after a suicidal call for a quick single.

When Ponting did fall, even the Barmy Army were momentarily stunned. His impression of permanence had been so brilliantly stated after the reprieves granted by Giles and Collingwood, it was as though a new battle had been called. Ponting's hitherto nerveless lieutenant Mike Hussey, who had unerringly reached 90, was so affected he was almost immediately bowled by Hoggard. In the wake of the quick dismissals of Matthew Hayden and Damien Martyn, which left Australia at a critical 65 for 3, Hussey's balance between defence and attack - he hooked the appreciably restored Steve Harmison for a six of withering power and certainty - had looked utterly impenetrable as England fought impressively to hold on to their advantage.

But then suddenly he was without an anchor, a plight which, for his team's chances of avoiding the follow-on and a devastating blow after the elation which came at the Gabba, was relieved only partly by the partnership of Michael Clarke and Adam Gilchrist which carried Australia to the close.

While Clarke and Gilchrist held off the surging Hoggard, Ponting was haranguing those superior tail-enders Shane Warne and Brett Lee, on his belief that a flat, dry wicket still offered many life-giving runs. They might have said it was easy for him to say - easier, indeed, than any cricketer currently at work, with the possible exception of Pakistan's Mohammad Yousuf, who has hit nine centuries in his last 19 innings at an average of 99.33. Yousuf is not quite at the Ponting mark, but then that has suddenly become the benchmark not just of today but the greatest achievements cricket has ever known.

One ageing Australian, who remembers how it was when the Don carried his great talent into his 40th year, insisted that he saw in Ponting something rather more than an authentic challenge to the deeds of cricket's ultimate hero.

"You know," he said, "the more I look at him bat, the more I'm reminded of Bradman. He has the same, bird-like movement at the crease; he's small and precise and he always seems to know exactly what he is doing."

It is still another daunting aspect of the apparently inexorable rise of a master batsman, this idea that he is taking on the very mannerisms of the man who for so long was believed to have operated in a world of his own. Certainly it will be something to bear in mind if England do build on these last few days of character and high achievement. Refusing to return the Ashes to Ricky Ponting would, no doubt, deserve its own extraordinary place in the history of cricket.

Ponting's Test year

Tests: 8

Innings: 11

Runs: 1,200 at 109.09

100s: 7

Highest score: 196