S Africa 451-9dec & 194-6dec Australia 359 & 288-2: Ponting hits out to make unique mark in history

By Peter Roebuck
Saturday 07 January 2006 01:00

Ponting led the way by becoming the only player to score centuries in each innings of his 100th Test. After a quiet start, Hayden gave belligerent support. South Africa fell back and were a beaten side long before the last runs were collected.

Graeme Smith's declaration was generous and depended on a breakthrough with the new ball to upset his opponents on a reliable pitch. Without early wickets he soon resembled a leader fighting tanks with pitchforks. Lacking his fastest bowler and a competent spinner, he could not halt the home advance.

Not that his captaincy has been astute. Throughout he has been an hour behind the play. Nor has his batting reached the expected standards. His habit of missing straight deliveries had little to commend it. His main consolation has lain with the performances of younger batsmen. Bad news followed with the reporting of Johan Botha's bowling action. A fine for a slow over rate added to the gloom.

Ponting presided over the trouncing of a willing but ultimately inadequate opponent. Defeat in the Ashes came as a shock to a captain with an outstanding record. Suddenly he sampled the isolation of the vanquished. Since returning home he has been more forceful. Previously he may have felt like a sergeant in the officers' mess. Now the army marches to his tune.

As a batsman Ponting has achieved the highest state of being. He scores quickly and does not look like getting out. Judgement of length has been the cornerstone of his work. Any bowler dropping fractionally short can expect to be dispatched into the 10th row. He pounces on these deliveries with the alacrity of a Russian spotting a bottle of vodka. Forced to pitch a fuller length, bowlers are promptly driven to distraction.

Apart from his pulling and straight driving, Ponting is also superbly balanced, swift between the wickets and can cut as well as any sub- editor. He combines clinical efficiency with a desire to dominate. In short he has become an accomplished player, among the best his country has produced. Nor can any discussion about the great batsmen of the era ignore him.

Not every part of his current presentation has pleased the critics. Beyond doubt Ponting has been more uncompromising and his team more confrontational, but that is part of the programme. He leaves it to officials to police events on the field.

Those frustrated by his timidity in England cannot condemn his current aggression. Far from allowing matters to take their course, Ponting has imposed himself. Before yesterday's play he spoke at length to his players. Whatever he said worked. Moreover he led from the front. His captaincy is not near the end. It has just begun.

Hayden was ominous in his certainty. Nowadays he bides his time before unfurling bruising drives past the bowler. After Justin Langer had been bowled by the ball of the day, a fast inswinger, the muscular left-hander moved along in his captain's slipstream before unleashing his own power. He reached 90 before losing his wicket trying to lift a ball into a nearby car park.

Afterwards the South Africans licked their wounds. Teams hoping to beat these Australians must take their chances.

* A brilliant spell of bowling from Chaminda Vaas proved in vain as New Zealand won the fourth one-day international in Wellington by 21 runs. The Kiwis lead the series 4-0 with one to play, which means Sri Lanka rather than England are likely to have to qualify for September's Champions' Trophy.

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