AT THE fall of the second wicket at Bellerive yesterday, Ricky Ponting appeared as usual. This was happenstance. Dave Warner and Phil Hughes had crossed wires rather than paths, Warner had been run out and lunch was about to be served. Ponting, scrubbed up and draped in daughters, was there to be feted by the Tasmanian throng. Mutely, it was also to act as a marker by which Australia could measure its hesitant remaking.
For fully 10 years, Ponting had batted exclusively at No. 3, itself a vast feat. For the past two years, he came at No. 4, sometimes to solve a problem, and at the very end mostly to add to one. Yesterday's arrangement in those positions were Hughes and Shane Watson, to follow Warner and Ed Cowan. As Australia seeks desperately to reverse its slide, its top has been as fluid as the bottom has been molten. All four are openers; if Australia was a golfer, it would see in its bag three drivers and a metal wood.
Yesterday represented opportunity. South Africa had gone, and the temperature had fallen. Hobart was grey, chilly and empty stands apathetic. The Sri Lankan attack - if not as apologetic as Robin Petersen, who had said sorry to Ponting for dismissing him in Perth - was best described as fit and available, and the pitch was Test-match true. There was negligible swing, but enough seam for Sri Lankan captain Mahela Jayawardene to keep slips in place all day, so checking batting ambition, although slips setting necessarily is an inexact science: the day's one cordon catch was taken at vacant third slip, by Jayawardene himself, somehow proxing in from second. It was a blinder. The sum of the day - with the new old firm of Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey still on the bridge at stumps, a few new-ball chips and bruises to go on with, their overnight scores in the usual ratio - was for Australia gratifying. But the parts will feel unfulfilled.
The bitterest sweet will have been Hughes, reappearing in Test cricket through the same door he exited a year ago. Despite the racy headlines, he looked not to have radically rebuilt his technique but his outlook.
Immediately, he was more assertive, twice crashing left-armer Chanaka Welegedara through covers. Previously, he batted as if always conscious of the slips, and somehow obliged to play with them, but now he proceeded as if oblivious to them. It was not abandon. Rather, it was that there were many other parts of the ground to which he might score. He drove much more than he cut or steered, and regularly even picked to leg. Some kinks remain, and always will. Once, he fetched Rangana Herath from outside off-stump for six over long-on, and everybody in the ground did a double take.
It helped that Sri Lanka's bowlers come not to make demands, but to negotiate; only with the second ball last night did they finally bang their fists on the table. For hours, they tested Hughes' patience - at one stage, he went 80 balls without a boundary - but they rarely tried his old vanities. At last Welegedara did. It cost him a couple of fours, then to all intents gained him Hughes' wicket, from a reversion-to-type slash. Alas, he had overstepped by so far it would have been called no-ball in the nets. ''My day,'' read the subtitle. An hour later, Welegedara pierced bat and pad.
Warner struck a mature balance, scoring freely enough, but only sometimes forcing and never blazing. As to Hughes, tight Sri Lankan bowling served to concentrate his mind. Then he reneged on his own call. Like Hughes in his turn, Warner stalked from the ground, deaf to applause; for neither did this half-century feel like the securing of a beachhead. Cowan did not even get off the boat, botching a pull shot.
Watson drove Welegedara on length rather than line and edged to the general vicinity of Jayawardene. His was a laboured innings, giving heft to the impression that he has never quite fitted into any of the top-order positions, although he has taken on his repeated redeployment uncomplainingly. When at last Hussey goes, the full cycle surely will return Watson to No. 6.
The code to the day is this is not South Africa, England, or India in India. Australia still has far to go.