Seldom have louder roars been heard at any sporting arena. Seldom have two such Test matches been played within a fortnight. Seldom has a local colossus fulfilled expectations as emphatically as did Andrew Flintoff. Seldom has a captain defied the times as magnificently as did Ricky Ponting in his country's hour of greatest need.
Many will salute Flintoff's towering contribution, but Ponting was his match yesterday. As Australia slept, its captain produced one of the finest defensive innings of recent times and much the best of an already distinguished career. After languishing for four days, Ponting redeemed himself with a performance so defiant and skilful that it deserves a place alongside the finest of its type. Heavens, it might have been Steve Waugh out there, or Allan Border or Ken Barrington.
Ponting was outstanding. Over the past few days his worst nightmares have come to pass. His team had gone to pieces and he had looked powerless to arrest the slide. Not without reason, his tactics had been criticised. Worst of all, England were on the verge of taking a 2-1 lead in his first Ashes campaign as captain. Something stirring was needed, yet he must have felt the weight of the world upon his shoulders.
Overnight, Ponting must have prayed for a long innings from his most dogged batsman, Justin Langer, a man prepared to bat through entire series of Big Brother. It took a single ball to shatter that hope and the Australian captain found himself marching to the crease with the day hardly five minutes old. Already he was entering unfamiliar territory.
A fifth day? Australia had won the previous Ashes series by the 11th afternoon. Playing for a draw? What on earth was a draw? As usual he started shakily. Like those gramaphones of yesteryear, Ponting's feet take a while to warm up. Occasionally he played across the ball, the middle of his bat alone curtailing the bowler's yelp for leg before wicket. Once the Tasmanian had taken his bearings, though, he set about building the sort of colossal construction required by his side. By doing so, he confirmed that he is a batsman of many parts and a responsible leader of the team. Captaincy is a piece of cake when everything is falling into place.
Unwilling to concentrate solely on defence, an approach that flatters the bowlers and allows opposing captains to crowd, Ponting played the ball away efficiently off his pads and pulled with absolute control. If anything, his straight driving was even more impressive as, with the full face of the bat and little apparent effort, he sent the ball skimming discouragingly back past the bowler.
Ponting also countered the turning ball with patience and skill. Not that the ball turned as much as expected. Pitches do not crumble as much these days. Nor did the spinner try his luck around the wicket until starting his 27th over. Nevertheless Ashley Giles asked awkward questions. Combining soft-handed defence with fleet-footed attack, and judging the length and direction of the ball unerringly, Ponting answered them all.
Of course, Ponting could not save the match on his own. Support was needed. Ponting watched for the bowler's end as partners tried to keep him company. Unable to make hide nor hair of Flintoff, none of the left-handers had an easy time. For once the right-handers had the better of it.
But the fate of the contest and maybe the series depended on Ponting's ability to nurse his side to safety. He almost made it. Shane Warne kept him company until the last hour began. Brett Lee hung on desperately. After 411 minutes of defiance, Ponting tried a pull and the ball brushed his glove. He left with head bowed, a fine batsman who had played the innings of his life. His tailenders did not let him down. As one spectator put it, "you wouldn't be dead for quids".
Ball of the Day
Simon Jones is becoming England's reverse-swing expert and he produced a beautiful inswinger to remove Michael Clarke's off-stump. Clarke's departure exposed Australia's tail.
Shot of the Day
Ricky Ponting scored Australia's first Test hundred of the tour when he drove Stephen Harmison through the covers for four. His 156 proved to be the difference between defeat and a draw and it was an important moment for the under-fire captain.
Moment of the Day
When they shut the gates at 9.45am yesterday morning it was unfortunate for the thousands who were locked out of Old Trafford, but it was brilliant to see such an interest in cricket.