There, that wasn’t so hard, was it Ricky?
So Ricky Ponting has quit as Australian cricket captain. About time. And Ricky Ponting will still be available for selection as a regular member of the team. As he should be.
Months and even years of speculation were laid to rest at the SCG today, when Ponting announced his seven year reign was over. “I’ve still got a lot to offer as player,” he told a hefty media contingent. “Younger players can learn from me and the way I play, and there’s no better place for them to learn than in the heat of the battle.”
Before the announcement, a few wise-cracking journalists were framing the odds of Ponting breaking into tears. Didn’t happen. Ponting only made his decision last night, and called Michael Clarke first thing this morning to tell him. But he kept his emotions in check, even if his crumpled notes suggested he’d rehearsed his lines long into the night to keep the waterworks at bay.
Unsurprisingly, Ponting said he’d now take the field with a lighter burden on his shoulders. He hopes that runs may flow a little more easily now, until the day he pulls the pin. Twenty million Australians could have told him that.
So what of the legacy of Australia’s 42nd Test captain, one Ricky Thomas Ponting?
“I’d like to think I’ve achieved a lot more than [three Ashes losses],” he was at pains to point out today.
Many of Australia’s less generous cricket fans have long suggested that Ponting couldn’t lead a pack of rats to jump a sinking ship. That’s not entirely fair.
Ponting did have numerous leadership successes, especially in the one day game. As mentioned on The Punch recently, his two World Cups, both of them as the spearhead of unbeaten campaigns, don’t look too bad on the CV.
Ponting today also proudly mentioned his 16 match Test winning streak as captain from 2005-2008, a feat which equalled Steve Waugh’s more celebrated streak from 1999 to 2001.
But for all his successes, he’ll never escape the stigma of his unprecedented three Ashes losses. Australia’s players are always saying that nothing is more important to them, or the public than The Ashes. So Ricky can hardly shy away from this massive, massive blot on his copybook.
To mangle that old Oscar Wilde quote about the death of one’s parents, if losing one Ashes series as skipper was bad luck, and two was carelessness, then three losses looked like sheer incompetence. No one doubts Ponting’s status as Australia’s best batsman since Bradman. But was he really that poor a skipper? Let’s delve a bit deeper.
After inheriting Steve Waugh’s One Day team in 2003, and promptly winning a World Cup with a squad weakened by the withdrawal of Shane Warne (for foolishly raiding his mum’s medicine cabinet), Ponting inherited Steve Waugh’s Test team in early 2004.
Off he marched to Sri Lanka, where something quite remarkable happened. For the first time in Test cricket history, a team won a three match series 3-0 after conceding a first innings deficit in each match.
That first Test, where Australia trailed by 161 runs in the first innings, reveals a telling tale. Australia won the match, after Matt Hayden top scored in the second dig, and Shane Warne took 10 wickets for the match. The lesson is obvious: when the big guns fired, so did Ponting’s Australia.
But as we all know, the legends started to retire as Ponting’s seven year tenure unfolded. And the departures of Warne, McGrath, Langer, Hayden, Gilchrist, Martyn, Gillespie, Lee and even Andrew Symonds proved too much to overcome. It’s hard to argue that even Mark Taylor, with all his famed tactical nous, would have won too many series with that lot vanishing overnight.
Clearly, Ponting was several tactical rungs below his predecessors Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh. There are countless examples of him freezing in “the heat of the battle” (his favourite phrase), never more shockingly than when he bowled Mike Hussey for four overs in a Test Australia had some chance of winning in India. His excuse was that he was trying to fix the slow over rate. Slow brain, more like it.
As pointed out in The Punch last year, Ponting wasn’t half the man motivator that Steve Waugh was either. But he did have one handy characteristic as captain. He was a scrapper.
Early in his career, he was literally that. To his credit, he never again got into trouble after his 1999 Kings Cross dustup, and recovered from alcoholism. Whatever you think of the man, he has tremendous fighting qualities, and admirable self control. He fought and fought and fought to get where he did, and carried a few likeminded souls with him along the way, like Andrew Symonds.
To the end, or as long as was reasonably possible, he defended his mates - even if, like Marcus North, they were totally useless, or like Andrew Symonds, patently a pisshead.
He had other qualities befitting a captain, not least of them an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. Ponting has always pretended not to care for stats, or to know the averages of every cricketer in history down to three decimal places, but the fact is, he does.
Meet Ricky Ponting off the field and the small talk is awkward and stuttering. Start talking about cricket, anything to do with cricket, and away he goes, like one of his beloved greyhounds flying the lids.
The irony is that somehow, that incredible cricket brain just never quite flourished when it counted on the field. His bat flourished, too many times to mention. But his tactical mind was somehow locked away, valuable as gold bullion in a safety deposit box, but just as inaccessible.
And then one day his brain snapped. More than once, actually, though the most recent occasion, his inexcusable ball slam and hissy fit after a near collision with rookie team-mate Steve Smith, was the last straw. He’d clearly been there long enough with the “c” beside his name.
Ricky says he wasn’t tapped on the shoulder, that he chose his moment himself. Well, as seasoned Channel Seven and Sky News sports reporter Jim Wilson told me at today’s event “cricket captains don’t go quietly, they have to be taken out in a body bag.” It’s a fair point.
Anyway, he’s gone now. And will bat on, if selected, which he will be. Other countries routinely retain a deposed skipper as a player, but it hasn’t happened in Australia for 30 years. Kim Hughes lasted just a couple of Tests after Border took over. Here’s hoping Ponting does a little better.
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