Peerless Ponting rekindles the Australian fires

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The Independent Online

For a team described as inept, soulless and immature, Australia turned in an adequate performance yesterday in the Third Test against India. Considering that they had also been charged with letting themselves down and seeking excuses, it was remarkable.

It may also have met the requirements of their coach, John Buchanan, who clearly has no time for underachieving, no-talent backsliders and seems pretty sniffy about overachieving, multi-talented world conquerors. It was Buchanan who had made the startling allegations in handwritten notes to his charges after their unexpected defeat by India in the Second Test.

He could claim to have extracted the required response. India, resuming the second day in Melbourne on 329 for 4, lost six wickets for 16 runs and Australia replied by reaching 317 for 3, scoring at their customary four runs an over.

There were highly polished, perhaps inevitable, centuries for Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. Hayden was characteristically remorseless. His strokeplay, as ever, made up in ferocity what it lacked in elegance, and his 136 came from 173 balls. India never managed to restrain him for more than an over at a time, and Ponting was almost equally dominant in making his sixth century of a year in which his Test batting average is 90. Ponting has now made 20 Test hundreds and has already fulfilled all the grandiose predictions made on his behalf when he was an adolescent prodigy.

After this series finishes, win or lose, Ponting will succeed Steve Waugh as Australia's captain. His tenure in that office will eventually determine his status in the game's history, and whether he will join Waugh as one of the great captains as well as one of the great batsmen.

It was notable that Ponting lent more support to Buchanan's appraisal than Waugh, who was dismissive. The criticisms might have seemed extreme, since Australia had gone 10 Test series without losing a match while the series was still alive. Waugh, who now has nothing to lose - except the series, of course - suggested that the attacking manner in which Australia conduct their business also allows the opposition time and opportunity to win, which is what happened in Adelaide. Perhaps Buchanan - and Ponting - sensed that all was not well and wanted to nip complacency in the bud.

Buchanan had been passionately forthright. "Boys," his note began, "I am so disappointed with the soulless, un-Baggy Green, immature performance. I love each and every one of you like my own family, but like my own family you thrill, you frustrate, you anger." He added: "You are letting yourselves down seeking excuses, rather than being totally responsible for your decisions." This was all grist to the Australian media's mill but it also demanded another interpretation.

First, that India played well to win in Adelaide; and secondly, that no matter what decisions you make, no matter how mature you are, no matter how much you cherish the Baggy Green, it takes some doing to cope without two transcendent players such as Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. True, until yesterday, MacGill had taken more Test wickets (55) in 2003 than any other bowler, and Jason Gillespie was fifth in the list. But MacGill is not Warne and Gillespie is not quite, yet at any rate, McGrath.

MacGill at least played a key role yesterday in extinguishing India's innings, which could have been described as inept and soulless and wasted Virender Sehwag's astonishing 195. The leg spinner took two of the six wickets to fall in eight overs. Sourav Ganguly, India's captain, was perhaps most culpable, flashing to gully.

Australia remain formidable, and India will have to stretch every fibre of their collective body and mind to take this series to the wire. But the tourists have encouraged hope elsewhere, and Buchanan's missive demonstrated why. Both Warne and McGrath may come back but they are nearer the end than the beginning. Ponting will have the opportunity to shape his own team: despite his presence, it may not possess the omnipotent aura of the one Waugh has led for almost five years.

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