Reserving his best for the last

THE thoroughbred sparkled on the Big Day and it was a gallop that conquered. They say Ricky Ponting has a passion for horses, loves picking a winner. Well, the Tasmanian did just that in the final at the Wanderers. He just backed himself and his team - they were the triumphant ones!

World Cup 2003 saw Ponting making a distinct impression as a captain who means business, and a batsman who delivers at the crunch, even as Australia extended its remarkable ODI winning streak to 17.

And to think here was a man who ran into disciplinary problems at the beginning of his career with Australia, making news for the wrong reasons — late nights and drunken brawls.

When he held aloft the World Cup at the Wanderers, his jubilant team-mates by his side, the transformation in the man was complete. Now he was single-minded and focussed, committed to the cause of Aussie cricket, and his job as the ODI skipper.

Behind Ponting's remarkable turnaround was his immense strength of mind. And it was his self-belief that saw him bounce back after a particularly dark phase, when he was even dumped from the Aussie line-up.

Ponting clearly had his finger on the pulse in Southern Africa. The Shane Warne drug scandal that preceded the first game against Pakistan could have unsettled and demoralised most sides, and there was a void in bowling.

However, Ponting got the best out of left-arm Chinaman bowler Brad Hogg, and, when key paceman Jason Gillespie departed with an injury, he extracted the maximum from the whole-hearted Andy Bichel.

Indeed, Ponting managed the overs extremely well, whether giving an extented spell to the lean and hungry Glenn McGrath or recalling the explosive Brett Lee for one more burst, or choosing the right moment to use the fifth bowler.

His field placements were innovative and attacking, and seldom did Ponting allow the pressure to ease on the opposition, daring them to find a way through, and luring them into a trap.

And he timed his best innings of the competition to perfection. It happened in the summit clash, a blitzkrieg that shut India out of the contest. Ponting's hurricane unbeaten 121-ball 140 - the highest individual score in a World Cup final — and his massive unbroken 234-run third wicket partnership with Damien Martyn did leave India running out of breath and ideas.

He struck eight towering sixes, and the ease with which this quick-thinking, quick-footed batsman found the gaps during the second half of the innings was mind-boggling. He did win a battle of the mind, when he jumped down to his nemesis of the past, off-spinner Harbhajan Singh, and twice struck him beyond the midwicket fence. This was the World Cup final, this would be different.

True, Adam Gilchrist had provided the Aussies with a blistering start. However, there was a minor pressure point when Harbhajan struck twice, removing both the openers. Ponting did begin tentatively, but with Martyn timing the ball like a dream, grew in confidence and soon it was a leather hunt for the Indians.

The thoroughbred was well on his way. Ricky Ponting was a winner on a day of sunshine and rain at the Wanderers... on a Big Day.

S. Dinakar