They're like buses. You wait in vain for a century for two Tests, and
then three come along at once.
It will be Ponting's that goes into the history books as the classic
captain's innings in the face of adversity, saving a match in the face
of a rampant bowling attack and keeping the series all square.
It wasn't your usual Ponting innings. Normally, he doesn't so much
attack bowling, or tear it apart, as give a graphic demonstration of
why it's not good enough. The Ponting I know reminds me of a teacher
at my prep school who used to enjoy showing off, facing 12-year-old
bowlers with a running commentary of "If you bowl like that, then THIS
[thwack] is what the batsman will do with it."
But yesterday's innings was of a very different stripe. This was not
an attack to trifle with, and the situation allowed of no such
frivolity. This was deadly serious. He didn't start well, looking
apprehensive and playing and missing, doing his best not to give his
wicket away but giving plenty of cause to believe that he would
Then Martyn was sawn off. Perhaps that was the sting which Ponting
needed, because from then on he played with steel and stopped being
tentative. He played some scintillating shots which on another day
would have been loudly applauded, but were regarded as party-pooping
by the heavily partisan crowd and were greeted more with groans. He
just ploughed on, playing one of those innnings where the score climbs
a lot more rapidly than you think and you keep getting surprised when
you look at the number by his name on the scoreboard. So much so that
when he and Clarke came out after tea, the target no longer seemed
unreasonable - so they went about their business as though they were
going to get there. Good plan, as long as you reckon you can rely on
the tail to hang around for long enough to last out time, and clearly
Ponting did - with the evidence of the previous tail performance in
this series to back him up.
As soon as Clarke was dismissed, Ponting put the brakes on. He was
still keen on punishing bad balls, but he stopped trying to score off
good ones, and then shepherded the tail until he was in sight of
safety - and then fell agonisingly short. The fact that the door was
left ajar probably assisted the crowd in giving him the generous
ovation he deserved: the thousands of England fans crammed into the
ground knew they had seen a very special inings, and later they would
be able to say "I was there."
But he only had to play that innings because of the other two
centuries which had given England such a large advantage.
First there was Vaughan, who thought we should see a rerun of a golden
classic. A couple of years ago, he was briefly the world's number one
batsman after making three big hundreds against Australia, and with
his 166 he showed the home crowd what those innings had been like. He
too needed a bit of a jolt, and with a drop followed immediately by
being bowled off a no-ball he must have realised that today was the
day the sun was out for him.
Some of us were once sitting around at an end-of-season game
discussing who we would pay money to go and watch if we knew they
would make a hundred that day, and we decided that the England batsman
would be Gower and the overseas one would be Zaheer Abbas (which
obviously rather dates the conversation). Today, I'd answer Vaughan
and Lara. Whether Vaughan ends up in the books as an all-time-great or
not, when he is on song, he plays as only great batsmen do. Carp about
his low scores in other games if you will, but there aren't many finer
sights in cricket than Michael Vaughan taking an attack to the
cleaners, and this innings was as fine an example as you could wish
Then there was Strauss, the bloke who had so far failed to show why
anyone had had the idea that he was a good batsman, and had seemed
especially clueless when facing Warne. Hours in the practice nets must
have played a part, maybe it was also the knowledge that England were
more interested in runs than exactly who got them so that getting out
playing an attacking shot wouldn't necessarily mean a severe
dressing-down on return to the pavilion, but after playing himself in
he started to play with enterprise and confidence. He still didn't
play the leg-spinning all-rounder awfully well, but he wasn't afraid,
tried as hard as he could to play positively, and had the odd miscue
which fell safely - with the success shown on the scorecard.
It was the kind of entertaining century which makes for a very
pleasant way to spend three or four hours watching cricket on a summer
afternoon. This one contained Strauss shots rather than Martyn shots
or Sarwan shots or Younis Khan shots, but that was simply a matter of
circumstance. Apart from the fact that it was Warne, McGrath and Lee
bowling at him and there were twenty-odd thousand in the ground, it
could have been the third day of a championship match as the side with
the advantage pressed to set up the declaration.
That's not to say that McGrath and Warne are ordinary county
trundlers. Far from it. But neither is Strauss an ordinary county
batsman. What we were seeing was ordinary cricket played by top-class
performers: a passage of play where the bat was in control and the
bowling can't do much about it, which everyone has seen in domestic
cricket. Clearly the bloke who's writing the scripts for these amazing
matches decided this series needed one and Strauss and McWarne just
happened to be the guys due on set at the time.
The only remarkable aspects of it were the externals: it was a pretty
reasonable gainsaying of Warne's assertion that Strauss was the new
Darryl Cullinan, and allows him to tick the "Can do it against
Australia" box on his application form for the Serious Batsmen's Club,
but otherwise it was just another hundred.
Just another hundred. As if anything about this Ashes series were