Ponting scores over the rest

Australian Prime Minister John Howard with Ricky Ponting, after presenting the Alan McGilvray Medal. The Aussie batsman was adjudged the ABC Test Cricketer of the Year for 2003. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

Ricky Ponting, his body and mind in harmony, has used his willow with calculated precision, whether unleashing that booming cover-drive, winding up to essay the pull or laying back to produce the scorching square-cut, writes S. DINAKAR.

High on octane and low on sympathy for the bowlers, respected by team-mates, feared by adversaries, a few run-makers are running hot.

Their methods might be different, but they all have a striking similarity. These men are fiercely focussed and highly influential with their ways at the crease.

Even as they go about draining the opposition physically and denting it psychologically, they are engaged in a fascinating race of their own. This is a contest that will determine the No. 1 Test batsman on CURRENT FORM.

The contenders are many... Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, Rahul Dravid, Brian Lara. With so much class thrown in, it is a tough call to make.

Several factors will have to be taken into consideration — the number of runs notched up, the quality of the efforts, the situation under which they were made, the conditions that had to be overcome, and the impact their knocks had on the match.

Ponting, his body and mind in harmony, has used his willow with calculated precision, whether unleashing that booming cover-drive, winding up to essay the pull or laying back to produce the scorching square-cut.

The 29-year-old Tasmanian was in rousing form in 2003, his 1503 runs in 11 Tests, the most by an Australian in a calendar year, at an astonishing 100.20 being proof of that. In, 2002, he had gathered 1064 runs in 11 Tests at a whopping 70.93.

The shift from No. 6 to No. 3, during the Ashes in England 2001, has done wonders for his batting, and the responsibilities of captaining the Aussie ODI side, and being nominated as Steve Waugh's successor in Tests, have matured him greatly.

The manner in which he has coped with differing conditions in 2002-2003 has been quite remarkable. While Ponting has been outstanding on home soil, his Test centuries in Cape Town, Colombo, Sharjah, Georgetown, Port of Spain and Bridgetown, indicate his ability to make runs on all surfaces.

While he has been equal to the task against the South African pacemen on pitches with bounce, the Tasmanian Devil was at his meanest in the two-Test series against Pakistan, in Colombo and Sharjah, meeting fire with fire as Shoaib Akhtar let rip, and handling Saqlain Mushtaq with aplomb. Then in the Caribbean, on wickets with variable bounce, Ponting delighted with three centuries in the series, including a double hundred in Port of Spain.

Now his 242 (in Adelaide) and 257 (in Melbourne) in back to back Tests at the expense of the Indian attack suggests he could be at the peak of his powers. During the double hundred at the MCG, Ponting, with Australia under pressure, displayed the ability to not just survive but thrive when the heat is on, dismissing the bowling ruthlessly, using his feet against the spinners, launching into the front foot strokes while tackling the pacemen.

In terms of sheer quality though, Ponting's first innings 141 at the P. Saravanamuthu Stadium against the varied Pakistani attack in October 2002 on a lively surface stands out. That was an innings where he faced off against Shoaib Akhtar, Waqar Younis, Mohammed Sami and Saqlain Mushtaq, all having the ability to run through an innings.

The right-hander attempts to seize the initiative from the bowlers, dominates them mentally, not really allowing them to settle into a groove, and finding the gaps with ridiculous ease, which is the hallmark of a champion batsman.

However, not even Ponting has a record as impressive as that marauding opener, Matthew Hayden. Now, the big-made Queenslander is the only batsman in cricket history to record a thousand and more Test runs in three successive years and Hayden has done just that from 2001, when he began his hard earned comeback into the Australian team following years of frustration and anguish, dismantling the Indian spinners with his footwork and the sweep shot.

Like most Australians, he can be brutal with the cut and the pull, however, the 32-year-old Hayden is also a wonderful driver of the ball in front of the wicket, and is eminently capable of putting away good deliveries to the fence. Both Ponting and Hayden create scoring opportunities; do not wait for them to happen.

The southpaw has a mind-boggling 16 Test three-figures knocks in the last three years, including the world record 380 against the Zimbabweans in Perth this season. Hayden has also formed an aggressive, durable all-left opening partnership with Justin Langer, and often sets the tempo, a rollicking one that for the rest to follow.

To that extent, he does make the job of the No. 3 easier for when Ponting walks in, the bowlers often are already in a defensive mode, following the onslaught by the openers.

Rahul Dravid does not have this luxury. With India having an unsettled opening combination for most part of the last two years (before the India-Australia series), Dravid had to weather the early storm, then consolidate and build his innings. In a line-up of stroke-makers, the `Wall' has a vital and a demanding role to play.

Not that Dravid, who can execute strokes of classical beauty such as the flowing cover-drive, the delicate late cut, and the delectable flick, does not have shots. It's just that he often has to eschew risks in the interests of the team.

None in the Indian side, save Sachin Tendulkar, is a better puller against quick bowlers than Dravid. This genial cricketer has also shown that a batsman does not have to really belt the ball to emerge a match-winner.

Dravid has won two crucial away Tests for India over the last two years. The conditions for batting were worst on day one of the Leeds Test in 2002; there was a dense cloud cover, the ball was swinging around, and there was sufficient bounce in the pitch too. The Karnataka batsman's battling 148 was the most important innings in the context of the match.

Then, Dravid's epic 233 at Adelaide and his decisive 72 not out in the second innings of the Test, not only displayed his great ability to adapt to the conditions, but also revealed his remarkable fitness levels and powers of concentration.

Despite the best away record among all Indian batsmen (61.55), Dravid's lacklustre performance down under, in the 1999-2000 series, put one question mark in an otherwise a glittering career. Was his relentless quest for perfection, that burning desire to excel under all conditions, threatening to consume him? Dravid has given his answer.

He played just five Tests in 2003, yet has a stunning 803 runs to his credit at 100.37; in 2002 he had notched up 1357 runs at 59.00 in 16 Tests, inclusive of three figure knocks in four successive Tests.

Technically, Dravid scores over both Ponting and Hayden, for his game is wafer-tight. Ponting for all his other successes, has been found wanting on Indian pitches where the ball `grips' for the spinners. His otherwise sure footwork turns tentative and he has often resorted to desperate methods.

Hayden is dominant, authoritative, but can be vulnerable to deliveries that swing away from him, especially when he brings the bat down in an arc from a high back-lift to drive on the off-side - the Aussie did have an ordinary tour of England in 2001.

Dravid is sure off either foot, plays close to the body to cope with the swinging, seaming deliveries, does not take his eye of the short-pitched stuff from the quicks, and uses his feet against the spinners.

Now to that little magician from the Caribbean. Brian Lara, often walks the tightrope, bats with the instincts of a gambler, but his sheer talent has enabled him overcome technical shortcomings such as a tendency to drive away from the body, and a backlift too high for comfort against express pacemen.

But then, such is the talent level of this gifted left-hander that he can effortlessly caress a widish delivery past the ropes, and thump a lightning quick yorker to the fence! The little big man is just incredible.

Lara was buzzing in 2003 with 1344 runs at 74.66 from 10 Tests, and his premier achievement was the conquest of the destructive off-spinner Muttiah Muralitharan. Lara's 209 against Muralitharan & Co. in the St. Lucia Test of 2003 was only an extension of his amazing exploits during the tour of the Emerald Isle in 2001-2002, where he had knocks of 178, 221, and 130 in a three-Test series.

The 32-year-old Caribbean sizzled when taking on the much-vaunted Australian attack at home with 91 and 122 in the Port of Spain Test. It was a stirring effort. His recent 202 in the Johannesburg Test, when he sliced open the South African bowling, is reflective of his form; the burdens of captaincy are only inspiring this cricketer to soar higher.

Michael Vaughan's career graph as a batsman may not have moved in the favourable direction after he took over the mantle of captaincy against South Africa last season, however, this smooth stroking right-hander is an extremely capable batsman, strong in defence and decisive in his strokeplay.

And the 29-year-old Vaughan's run of scores during Ashes down under in 2002-2003 — where he conjured knocks of 177 in Adelaide, 145 (Melbourne) and 183 (Sydney) — has to take the top place in the degree of difficulty; he was up against Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Shane Warne on pitches with juice.

The notable feature of Vaughan's batsmanship is the transfer of weight, with the batsman making an initial movement forward, without actually committing himself on to the front foot. This is a theory advocated by the legendary Greg Chappell, where the batsman, while gaining the momentum to be on the top of the ball off the front foot, can transfer his weight back effortlessly. Beautifully balanced at the crease, Vaughan had 958 runs at 41.65 from 13 Tests in 2003, and 1481 from 14 at 61.70 in 2002. A strong puller, and delightful with his cover-drives, the tall and upright Vaughan has a lot more to offer.

Let's not for a moment forget Sachin Tendulkar, despite an eminently forgettable 2003 in Tests. To be fair to this great cricketer, he just figured in five Tests during the year and for a batman going through a slump, there were not enough matches to recover. Tendulkar, however, is the only batsman to reach 1000 runs for the year on four occasions, and two of them arrived in 2001 and 2002.

Tendulkar's double hundred in the series decider in Sydney suggests that the master batsman has rediscovered his old ways; this was always on the cards, given his awesome ability.

The tall V. V. S. Laxman walked tall in 2003, with a match-saving hundred against Kiwis in Mohali and a match-winning 148 in Adelaide. The man with magical wrists, an amazing sense of timing and one who possesses equanimity under times of duress, whipped up a stroke-filled 178 in Sydney, to begin 2004 on a rousing note.

There are others around such as the destructive Adam Gilchrist, who can swing matches in a hurry with his hurricane willow and possesses a whopping career average of 57.43, the solid and reliable Jacques Kallis, who could make even greater strides with the bat if some load is taken off him with the ball, and the promising South African opening duo of Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs — they could all take stake their claim in the days to come. Not to forget, the vastly under-rated Inzamam-ul-Haq, a big-built man with a delicate sense of timing.

The race for the top slot for the year 2003, eventually boils down to three batsmen though — Ponting, Hayden and Dravid.

In the final analysis, Ponting scores. His 1503 runs in 2003 is only behind Vivian Richards' 1710 in the all-time list for a year. The Aussie's back to back Test double hundreds against India, his ability to score runs at a fast clip and still construct a big innings, the frequency with which he sets up victories for the side walking in at No.3, his ability to adapt to most conditions and flourish during moments of adversity, indicates that ON CURRENT FORM, there is none better than the Punter from Tasmania. But then, this is cricket and things can change.