The Australian angle: Old guard may not be in vogue but they can still turn on the style
Friday 10 July 2009
Ring a bell for the old guard. As a tactician Ricky Ponting is not everyone's cup of tea but he can hold a bat with the best of them. Simon Katich is about as fashionable as a duffle coat but is doughty, dogged and defiant. Both had extra motivations to drive them along. Ponting does not intend to lose in England a second time, Katich's determination to redeem himself after his previous visit was written in his every stroke.
Standing shoulder to shoulder, Australia's second-wicket pair brought their team back into the match with a redoubtable collaboration. England's speedsters worked hard but, Andrew Flintoff apart, without the intensity required on pitches of this sort. Nor did the spinners turn the ball as much as, well, that Australian fellow. And so a visiting team that looked groggy in the morning was able to recover.
These seasoned campaigners brought solidity to a day hitherto dominated by zestful youth. Graham Swann and his fellow tailenders set the tone with some cheeky batting. As a rule, lower-order men called to take the side from respectability to command grit their teeth. They do not loft the ball over the head of a fast bowler, switch their hands or attempt a wider variety of sweeps than a bored house cleaner.
For so many years Swann was cast as a humdrum off-spinner from an unremarkable county. Off-spin is a sort of sporting prison. At the crease he revealed his true character. Thanks to him and various lofty lefties, England surged past 400 – the Australians looked rattled.
Phillip Hughes promptly carried the flag for antipodean youth with a skittish innings. Nothing is better in cricket than the sight of a fiery fast bowler banging the ball down at an adventurous batsman. When the bowler is a hero and the batsman is a daring newcomer the confrontation is even more compelling. But Hughes looked shaky and will be seeing a lot more of Mr Flintoff. However, he learns quickly – South Africa spent two Tests expecting to get him out next ball. When the youngster departed it seemed the visitors might fall into a hole. Instead Ponting and Katich held firm. Unlike their English conterparts they did not lose focus.
Katich knows his game. A smouldering man hurt by past rejctions, he shuffles into line and tucks the ball off his pads or persuades it past cover. Now and then he leans forward and with a flick sends the ball past the bowler. His bat seems broad and opponents see little of the stumps. He can sniff a single as well and puts a high price on his wicket. In short, he is an old-fashioned batsman, and none the worse for that.
Not long ago the Australians posed for a calendar. Amongst a collection of clean chested meterosexuals, Katich was the lone bear. He does not bother much with the fancy stuff.
From the moment he took guard Ponting was in fine fettle. His technique looked impregnable. Sometimes he falls across the ball early on but here his balance was perfect. Still and unhurried, he seemed composed as he guided the ball past point, stroked it through cover or pulled it to deep square. His patience against the spinners indicated his state of mind and confirmed that the Australians realise that rash strokes against slow bowlers have cost them.
Of late Ponting has suffered lapses of concentration, he had not quite settled on an strategy suitable to his age and responsibilities. Now he has adopted a slower tempo, exactly the approach taken by Sachin Tendulkar in the latter part of his career. The bowlers were given little room for hope. Cooling his blood, Ponting took upon himself the task of rebuilding the morale and improving the standing of his team. Considering its background, his innings was a substantial achievement. And so the visiting team ended the day in an unexpectedly powerful position, an advantage gained through a bloody minded refusal to get out or give up.
Peter Roebuck, the former Somerset captain, is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age
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