A brilliant career is finally given the punt
About time, too. In the end, Ricky Ponting didn’t so much fall upon his sword as trip over it and watch helplessly as his career slowly bled to death.
Ponting was our best bat since Bradman. Still is, despite Michael Clarke’s run-soaked year. But the Tasmanian’s first innings dismissal in Adelaide said it all. Not only had his once steady flow of runs dried up. Now his dignity was failing him too.
Ponting has just held his departing press conference ahead of his final Test commencing in Perth tomorrow. The last time he called a presser was in February to announce his retirement from One Day cricket. He hoped that would prolong his Test career. Wasn’t to be.
Ponting is almost 38 and has struggled in all forms of international cricket for some time now. His double century against India in Adelaide last summer kept the vultures at bay. But in nine innings after that Test, he has added just 166 runs at an average of 18. It wasn’t nearly enough runs.
And so, a legend comes full circle. Ponting will finish his Test career in Perth, where it all began 17 years ago against Sri Lanka, He made 96 that December day, and was unlucky to be given a dodgy lbw decision when just one boundary short of a century.
Missing the milestone didn’t matter. From that very first Test, it was obvious that Ponting belonged at the highest level. Most Australian batsmen get their first taste of the baggy green in their mid 20s. Ponting was just 20.
Ricky Ponting played in a golden generation of Australian batsmen that included the likes of the Waughs, Hayden, Gilchrist, Martyn, Langer, Hussey and Clarke – and he topped them all on the raw statistical measures of both average and aggregate. Also, unlike most of the batsmen just named, he was never dropped for a prolonged period.
But stats only tell half the story of his class. Watching Ponting in his prime was like having shares in banks. You just knew he’d pay dividends. When Australia needed a captain’s knock in the biggest match of all, Ponting belted a huge century in the 2003 World Cup final. When his 100th Test came round, he swatted twin hundreds to remind everyone why he’d played so many matches.
Like many of the greats, Ponting was not tall. But he was lithe and perfectly balanced at the crease. No batsman ever played the pull shot better. It is a shot where for a split second the batsman is face to face with a ball coming straight at his chin. In that micro-moment, he must commit and follow through with a calculated brutality.
And boy, did he do that. The Ponting pull shot is as timeless an image of Australian batsmanship as the Bradman cover drive. Michael Clarke plays the pull shot himself rather well these days, but Ponting did it sublimely for a decade and a half.
If Ponting had a technical weakness, it was his tendency to shuffle across the crease and dangle his bat a little early in his stay. He was always a candidate for getting out early and cheaply. Ponting has made 17 ducks in his 285 Test innings. By contrast, his great Indian contemporary Sachin Tendulkar has made 14 ducks from 317 innings.
His other weakness was as a captain. Ricky Ponting captained more Test wins than any other man, and was in charge of a team that went on a 16 match winning rampage that equalled Steve Waugh’s record.
For all those wins, and for all the saliva he expectorated on his fielding fingers in plotting the opposition’s downfall from the field, Ricky Ponting never quite had the intuition of his predecessors or his successor. He wasn’t a bad captain. But he wasn’t a brilliant tactician like Mark Taylor. Neither can he boast the legacy of young players who flourished under his leadership a la Steve Waugh.
Plus Ponting lost the Ashes twice. He won an Ashes series 5-0 in between those two losses too, but the fact remains, he captained losing Ashes teams both here and in England. It’s harsh, it’s unquestionably unfair, but in the eyes so many Australians, Ponting’s legacy begins and ends with those two series.
He knew it too. He wouldn’t admit it but he knew it. That’s why he was so desperate to push on till later this year and beat England in England. It wouldn’t have erased his losses as captain, but oh, it would have been sweet.
Alas, he won’t get the chance. Whether it was his eyes or his footwork or his concentration that let him down, we may never know. It’s true, too, that there is no candidate banging down the door to replace him. Doesn’t matter. None of it matters. All that matters is that Ricky Ponting hasn’t looked like the old Ricky Ponting for some time now.
Ponting has done the right thing quitting today. He will tie Steve Waugh’s record for the most Tests ever by an Australian (168). It may not be quite the magnanimous gesture Mark Taylor made when he declared on 334 not out in deference to Sir Donald Bradman’s then Australian record, but it leaves a lovely symmetry nonetheless.
The brilliant batsman and the steely-eyed warrior are now statistically welded together forever as symbols of Australia’s greatest ever period of sustained world dominance – a period to which they both made huge and unforgettable contributions.
Thanks, Ricky. And please, don’t dangle that bat against Dale Steyn this weekend because we still need you one last time.
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