Ricky Ponting has started 2009 with a fresh spirit. Certainly he seems more relaxed than he was during recent dust ups when he found himself ducking and weaving off the field even as he hooked bumpers on it.
Perhaps he senses that this team belongs to him, that he can put his imprint on it, that it is not too late to recover the livewire seen in his early years. He began as a young captain surrounded by players of vast experience and high calibre. He had not built the team so much as inherited it, and several of the regulars were his seniors. Not until the withdrawal of Matthew Hayden was he completely his own man.
He had a rotten year in 2008, moving from the craven SCG Test to the calamity of Nagpur, where even the Hallelujah chorus criticised him. Hereabouts he was an outstanding batsman but a stubborn, unimaginative captain. On this evidence he has put that behind him.
Arriving at the crease at the MCG the Tasmanian immediately tucked into his work, pushing the score along with a wide array of audacious and sometimes brazen strokes.
His first notable strike was a heave over mid-wicket essayed from a yard down the pitch, a stroke that seemed a leftover from the 20-over flings. Taking advantage of a firm pitch, clear skies and a somewhat unsettled opponent, the home captain was soon piercing the field with more orthodox strokes, including drives and unfussy pulls. He was, too, willing to lift the ball back over the bowler's head, and had the wit to leg glance Dale Steyn, turning the bowler's scorching pace back on him.
Along the way Ponting had a bit of luck, narrowly escaping a run-out second ball as he harked back to his artful dodger days, surviving a straightforward catch to square leg as Vaughn Van Jaarsveld had a heavy dose of first night nerves, and enduring a few close shaves as thunderbolts thumped into his pads only for an eagle-eyed umpire to realise they were destined to whistle over the bails. Ponting's frisky assault brought a tired format to life, allowed Shaun Marsh to take his time and forced the visitors to spread the field.
Ponting perished within sight of his 50 as he tried to angle a curious off-break past the gloveman only to get an even thinner tickle than intended. But he had set the tone for an efficient innings. Following their captain's example, the Australians kept pressing and produced the sort of total calculated to challenge a resilient opponent. Inspired once again by Jean-Paul Duminy, South Africa chased gamely and a disappointing crowd was hooked to the last. Ponting changed his bowling around without ever suggesting that he was in control. Judging from his performance on the third day of the Test match played on this ground he remains a limited tactician.
It is a relief to be able to find merit in the Australian captain, a task some observers find easier than others. The idea that it is inconsistent to praise him after condemning his leadership in the infamous SCG Test of 2008 is absurd. Cricket's primary lesson is that every ball must be met on its merits. That Test was the most unpleasant played on antipodean soil for at least 20 years. For the first time in this country's proud cricket history an opposing captain said the Australians had not respected the spirit of the game, an opinion shared by past captains and admired national leaders. For many proud Australians, believers in democracy and diversity and yes, a republic, it was a dispiriting occasion.
Nor did Ponting distinguish himself in those five days of heated conflict. He inadvertently claimed a catch after the ball had been grounded and responded angrily and with some confusion when the matter was raised. On both counts, by the way, this column defended him. Distinguished Australians sitting near the player's rooms complained about their conduct and a judge later described one player as an "unreliable witness". The row with Harbhajan Singh began when Andrew Symonds broke a silence pact reached in Mumbai, and included the sight of an Australian captain running from the field to complain to the referee. Australia spurned the visiting captain's peace pipe and pursued an unwinnable case bound to turn a mischievous opponent into a national hero. Certainly the Indians behaved badly as well, especially afterwards, but then they have been patronised for 400 years.
Why raise these ghosts? After the 2009 SCG Test glib jingoists suggested that the main difference between the Tests held a year apart lay in Anil Kumble and Graeme Smith. Of all the points on this issue, this is the most contemptible. It does a disservice to one of the game's most dignified leaders, a man without a single blemish to his name. It also demeans Ponting. After finishing 2008 on a low note with a series of defeats, Ponting appears intent on raising his game. Hopefully the cheer squad is thinking along the same lines.