The dog of war who savaged England wimps

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W G Grace would surely have approved Ricky Ponting's emphatic refusal to walk when Mark Ramprakash claimed a brilliant grass-level catch, an appeal which inevitably failed when it was taken to the arbitration of the big television eye in the sky.

The great doctor's unwavering conviction was that cricket fans came to watch him bat rather than umpires umpire and no amount of technological development, including the landing of a man on the moon, would have been likely to disrupt his belief. Here yesterday you could be equally certain that only the most doggedly committed England supporter would have traded the wicket of Ponting, before he had scored, for what flowed from his early crisis.

What it was was batsmanship of the cricketing gods. Three times he pulled for sixes so easily he might have been a librarian picking a book from a shelf, dusting it down, and returning it to its place in one swift and practised movement. The victims, Andrew Caddick, Alan Mullally, and Alex Tudor wore the glazed expressions of men pushed to the limits of their resolve. England's bowlers, and notably the moody Caddick, had had some reason to believe that they might just retrieve something of pride from the embers of this Ashes series when Michael Slater and Matthew Hayden were both back in the pavilion with a mere 42 runs on the board. Caddick claimed both wickets and there was a growing conviction in his stride. But Ponting's survival represented still another trapdoor through which England were about to plunge.

Ponting, the 26-year-old Tasmanian nicknamed "Punter" for his passion for greyhound racing, sprang it with a touch and authority which up until now had been strangely missing from the high summer of Australian achievement.

While the Waugh brothers, Adam Gilchrist and the re-emerging Damien Martyn variously applied the broadsword and the rapier, Ponting – whose three sixes were augmented by 11 fours in his eighth Test century – remained strangely mute. The Tasmanian devil was behaving mostly like a pussycat. But it couldn't go on, the captain, Steve Waugh, insisted before the third Test at Nottingham. "Ricky," said Waugh, "has missed out so far in the Tests but I expect it to end here. I think he is about to make big runs."

The captain spoke prematurely, but the beauty of Ponting's knock yesterday made it the most trivial of miscalculations. Class of this purity can be suppressed only for so long.

Ponting was in fact going over old, memorable ground. His first century came here four years ago, and in even less promising circumstances. Australia were sagging at 50 for 4 when he set about the England attack in 1997. Yesterday it wasn't so much an assault as an undermining, an easy exertion of the most complete dominance of bat over ball. England's resolve to rescue pride was again turned to rubble. Sometimes the inclination is to weep for England, so thoroughly have they been mastered these last few months. But then the tendency of life – and cricket – is to reward those who do most to harness their talent and rarely has there been such a mis-match as the one that has proceeded through this summer.

Yesterday, right from the start, after a three and a quarter hour rain delay, there was little relief from England's ordeal. Mullally allowed a Slater shot from the first delivery of the match to roll through his fingers for a four. Darren Gough's expression might have been the death mask of a martyr.

Mullally then proceeded to drop Slater. It was the worst of déjà vu, but when Ponting, with the obdurate support of Mark Waugh, took hold of the game such mishaps became the merest trifles. For England the depressing truth was confirmed on a tide of beautiful batsmanship. If two, three, even four Australian batsmen fail, one is bound to come off and utterly reshape the game in their side's favour. It has happened in each Test; the Waughs, Gilchrist, Martyn, briefly but crucially in Nottingham, have all stood in the face of English hope and turned it promptly to dust.

Ponting owns 27 greyhounds and maybe it was a visit to a local track earlier this week which unlocked the force of his exuberant talent. He had a fine time among the animals he so admires for their sleek and beautifully delivered power and certainly there was much of the greyhound about his own performance. He was a dog of war with fantastic springs in his heels. Of all his work yesterday, nothing was better than the drive through extra cover which brought up his 50. It was all balance and fluency and the ball didn't so much race to the boundary as glide.

For England there is no doubt the painful reflection that maybe Ramprakash did make a superb catch, and that, if it had stood, the bowlers would not have been put so elegantly to the sword and there would indeed have been a stirring of resistance to the idea that Australia can now beat England at any time and in any circumstances. Realists among them, though, will surely assign such thoughts to the realm of fancy. The fact is that if Ponting had gone, his place would have been taken by Martyn, and then a new boy called Simon Katich, who would have been followed by Gilchrist, who has generally proved himself a cyclone dressed in white.

Ponting just happened to come good yesterday. For the Australians, it was simply a rather breath-taking law of averages.