This year, they tortured India more slowly, with a partnership that lasted the best part of six hours and all but ensured Australia could not lose the Test.
Of course, since Kolkata in 2001, nothing has ever been truly certain in Tests between these two countries. But the drought-breaking century from Ponting – his first in nearly two years – and Clarke’s maiden Test double-hundred steered Australia into the kind of position from which it would take a Kolkata-like comeback to rescue India. They would need something very, very special.
The Sydney crowd had already witnessed the exceptional, from Clarke and Ponting. By stumps, Clarke was unbeaten on 251, having batted through the day, and it was not out of the question that he could become the first man to score a Test triple-century at the SCG. Michael Hussey had chipped in with 55 not out and Australia’s lead had ballooned to 291, with six wickets in hand.
Clarke’s innings was mature and mesmerising, but it was Ponting’s hundred that had really brought the crowd to life. Ponting had been starved of a Test century in his past 33 innings, and for the first time since the early days of his career had faced pressure to justify his place in the side. At no stage during his slump did he give up. It was somehow appropriate for a man who had fought so hard over the past few months that he was dirty and dishevelled when his hundred arrived.
The milestone came via a quick single, a poorly-judged one too, for a direct hit from Zaheer Khan at mid-on would have had Ponting run out for 99. He dived to make the crease and climbed up off the ground – the most fitting metaphor imaginable – with helmet askew and dirt all down his shirt and trousers. It was a sight that brought smiles from Clarke and even the umpire Ian Gould, and importantly from Ponting himself.
Amid all the debate over his form and his position in the side in recent months, Ponting had maintained that he was batting well. In this innings, he was. There were several classic Ponting pulls and his flicks through the leg side were a feature of his game. To some degree, he eschewed the typical Ponting back-foot drives through the off side, though that in part came down to the lines India bowled.
It was not until the second new ball arrived that Ponting departed, caught at point for 134 when he drove Ishant Sharma. Ponting walked off to a standing ovation, having joined his catcher, Sachin Tendulkar, and Jacques Kallis as the only men to have scored 40 Test centuries. His 288-run stand with Clarke, the highest fourth-wicket partnership ever compiled against India in Test cricket, had demoralised the visitors.
More was to come from Clarke, who had brought up his 18th Test century, and his fourth in his past 11 innings, with a perfectly placed cover-drive for four in the last over before lunch. His double-century arrived from his 284th delivery with a flick through square leg off Zaheer, and it brought a kiss of the helmet and a tear to the eye of Clarke, who is in his first home summer as Australia’s full-time captain.
Clarke scored his runs all around the ground, with cover-drives, off-drives, clips off the pads, pulls, cuts, lofts over the infield against spin – perhaps the only thing he didn’t attempt was a reverse-sweep. He was seeing the ball so well that he was able to walk across his stumps and down the pitch to turn good balls from the fast men into opportunities to score through the leg side. By stumps, he had the best score by an Australia batsman in an SCG Test, and needed 37 more to beat Tip Foster’s record for all-comers.
To cap it all off for Australia, Hussey joined in late in the day with some quick runs, including two consecutive fours followed by a six off R Ashwin. It was an immensely disheartening day for India, who could manage only one wicket throughout the day after 13 had fallen on the opening day. There were no-balls from the part-time offspinner Virender Sehwag, strange field placements from MS Dhoni and a general lack of spark, which was to be expected by the end of a long, hot day in the field.
In the first couple of overs of the morning, Dhoni had a man back at deep square leg when he needed to be on the attack, and later he removed all of his slips while Umesh Yadav was bowling, seemingly a concession that all he could do was try to slow the run scoring of Ponting and Clarke rather than try to get them out.
He can be rest assured that Clarke won’t be as defensive in the field when he gets his chance. Unfortunately for Dhoni, that might be a while off yet.