Ricky Ponting has retired from international cricket. After 17 years in the Australian team, Ricky Ponting has retired a legend of Australian, and world cricket. He has been a champion of champions. The respect given him by the South African team, in giving him a guard of honour to enter the ground for the final time was wonderful. It was very moving, well deserved and an indication of the regard in which Ponting is held. Why then do I feel so unaffected by his departure from the game? Why do I struggle to write a fitting farewell?
It is my custom to deliver a tribute to an icon when they retire. For most such players, this is usually an easy task. A pleasure. The emotion and the words flow. In some cases, such as Mark Waugh and Gilchrist, I have to admit the tears almost flowed. My daughter actually cried when Gilchrist retired. I have no tears in me for Ponting. Perhaps it is because he stayed too long. There is a sense of relief that he is finally gone, and with the dignity and farewell he deserved (even if it involved no runs for himself or his team). After some reflection, I realise it is because Ricky never had my heart.
It’s a funny thing the way we “love” cricketers. The average cricket fanatic such as myself, doesn’t really get to know a player beyond what they see on field and the odd press conference and interview. While these views can give quite some insight into a player’s personality and character, they are fairly limited windows into a person as whole. But love (or hate) them, we do. When I was young and impressionable, I loved Lillee, Marsh, Thommo and Viv Richards. Moving on from there, AB was my hero. I then loved Tubby Taylor, Slats, the Waughs, McGrath and Gilly. And even for all his antics and questionable behaviour, I could never stop loving Warnie. And now my affections lie with Michael Clarke. And after yesterday’s gesture, who would ever have imagined, Graeme Smith.
I guess for most of these players it is their sheer deeds that win our affections. We know them because they are elite cricketers and it is their achievements as cricketers that attracts our admiration. And we tend to love the players that win matches for our team. And if I am honest, it is part of the reason that off-field misdemeanours are forgiven. It’s probably not a good reason but there it is.
In the case of some players, it is the way they play the game. For example, Michael Slater may not go down as one of the greats but he was almost there and the way he scored his runs was a joy to behold. It may have been frustrating the number of times he was dismissed in the 90s but quirks like that often add to the appeal of a player.
When I searched the content of dongles.org for “Ponting” I got over 400 results. For those of you who have read my blog for a while, you will know that I have written a lot about Ponting, both good and bad. I have not been an admirer of Ricky Ponting as captain and have even criticised his character at times. I have no desire to dwell on those subjects at this time. Those observations and opinions are recorded on this blog and can be read at any time.
I will say that in considering how I would write this piece, I thought about Ricky the man and my reaction to him. I don’t know a great deal about Ponting’s upbringing or background. I believe that he came from working class Tasmanian stock and that probably is worth keeping in mind. I also wondered at times if he suffered from what I call “Small Man’s Syndrome”. You know the types – those feisty little terriers who seem to need to pick a fight with the biggest guy in the room. Those are my thoughts and are mere speculation, of course.
I believe Ricky’s very first match told us quite a bit about Ricky. First and foremost is that he could bat. He made 96 in his very first Test, against Sri Lanka, in Perth, before being given a very ordinary lbw decision. If they had DRS back then, Ponting would have made a century on debut. That event gave us some more insight into Ponting. His demonstrative and petulant reaction to being given out made it quite clear that he had hit the ball, well before we watched any replays. I guess we can make some allowances for youth and forgive such an outburst but it did give an indication, which was proven time and time again over the years, that Ponting was desperate to succeed and to win. Of course, those desires are natural in any top sportsman, and are part of the reason they are at the top. However, it does result in some ugly behaviour from some of them.
When Ponting announced his retirement, I thank Paul Kent for showing on the ABC morning show, some different footage from that very same match. Warne was bowling and there were many fielders around the bat, including Ponting. There was a huge appeal for a bat-pad catch (not taken by Ponting) which was turned down. The camera zoomed in on the close-in fielders and as most of them put their hands on hips and looked down, or threw their heads back, or buried their heads in their hands. But not young Ricky. He turned to the umpire and gave him a real earful. Paul Kent’s observation was that even though that was Ricky’s first Test, he obviously felt comfortable to get right into it. It just goes to show you that different people view things differently.
Not so long afterwards, Ponting was involved in that bar room brawl and it was admitted that he had an alcohol problem. He had even in those early days been earmarked for greatness and future captaincy and this now came under a cloud. To Ponting’s great credit, he addressed these issues immediately, had rehab and reformed. There have been no repeat performances and that is admirable. On reflection, I would say that Ponting made the most of what he had. He has character flaws (who hasn’t) and some of those affected him as a leader, but he was given a job and he did it as best he could.
Ponting’s deeds as a batsman are truly iconic. At his peak, he was the best of the best. People can debate until the cows come home who is second to Bradman. There can be no definitive answer. There are many candidates and Ricky Ponting is one of them. There can be no question of that. When it comes to Australian Test cricket, Ponting has more of just about everything in the batting stakes. Most runs (13,378), most centuries (41), most matches (=168), most wins as a player (109), most wins as a captain (48). And those last two stats are records for all countries. Perhaps I have lost sight of Ponting’s greatness as a batsman because it is a couple of years since he was there.
And you can just about repeat those accolades for one day cricket. Ponting may well be Australia’s best ever one day cricketer. He made over 13,700 runs at a very healthy average of just over 42, with 30 centuries. Added to his great slips fielding, he was a brilliant infielder who was agile and could threw down the stumps with great regularity. One of his landmark innings, in all forms of cricket, was his wonderful 140 in the 2003 World Cup final.
I can’t remember that many specific innings of Ponting. I recall his 157 to save a Test in the 2005 Ashes series. That was an epic and I note that Ricky called that his best innings. I do remember the back-to-back doubles against India in 2003 and his imperious innings – imperious is a word often used with Ponting – seem to blur into one. I don’t recall him single-handedly winning or saving many matches for Australia. AB saved the day too many times to count. Steve Waugh, Gilchrist and more lately Hussey, fought many famous rear guards. Steve Waugh made a century, his second for the match with a broken hand. I can’t recall too many like that about Ricky.
However, it is not fair to hold this against Ponting. Australia had just come to the (unofficial) number one position in Test cricket when Ponting started his Test career and they utterly dominated for the next ten years. There weren’t too many times when Australia had to be dug out of a hole. And more times than not, for obvious reasons, that job goes to the middle order batsmen and ‘keeper and Ponting was a top order man for almost his entire career. And we must never forget that Ponting was one of the reasons that Australia swept all aside for that period of time. When you list the super stars of that era, they are Warne, McGrath, Gilchrist and Ponting. The rest are just stars.
Ponting debuted a week shy of his 21st birthday in December 1995. He batted at number 5 and as already said, made 96. Aside from an early, unsuccessful attempt at first drop, he batted 5, 6 or 7 until the 2001 Ashes. After failing to reach 20 in the first three Tests, he cemented his place as the Australian number 3 with 144 in the fourth Test at Leeds. There he remained, until his form slump prompted him to slip down one place in September 2011. More than a year later, Australia is still looking for the new number 3.
I always find it interesting to look at the progress of a players average of his career. Obviously, Ponting’s average was 96 after his first innings. After that, his average dropped to the low forties and even mid-thirties until as late as 2001. Here, he started reaching his full potential. His average went up and up until it reached the mid fifties in 2005 and peaked at 59.99 in December 2006. The six years from 2002 to 2006 were Ricky’s days of greatest prosperity. He scored 6,141 runs at 72.24 with 24 centuries.
In 2003, the year before he took over as Test captain, Ponting scored 1,502 runs at an average of 100.2. I recently stated that Clarke and Bradman are the only batsmen to score three double centuries in a calendar year. I was wrong. It serves me right for not doing my own research. Ponting also did it in 2006. Following a mild form slump in 2004, the year of his ascension to the top job, in 2005 he made 1,544 runs at 67.13. By the end of 2006, Ponting had scored over 9,000 runs at a shade under 60 with 33 centuries. That was six years ago.
It has been steadily down hill from there. Not noticeably at first but as troubled times struck Australian cricket, Ricky was past his prime and was unable to single-handedly alter his team’s fortunes much. I don’t hold that against him. He was still good, very good even. I did not realise that Ponting scored just 8 centuries in his last six years. In fact, during that time. he made 4,055 runs at just 40.14 (and 2007 and 2008 were still pretty good years).
Ponting was injured and missed the last Test of the 2010-11 Ashes series. Michael Clarke took over and just like the transition from Benaud to Simpson, the unplanned handover became permanent. Even being relieved of the pressures of captaincy, he continued to struggle and must have been very close to oblivion prior to the Indian tour of 2011-12. It was during this time that I made the delightful discovery that the predictive text for “Ricky” on my mobile phone is “Shaky”.
Against the hapless Indians, Ponting made hay along with Michaels Clarke and Hussey to the tune of two centuries and three fifties with a top score of 221. He made 544 runs at 108.80. It was an extraordinary turn around, albeit against a very below par Indian team. It would have made a fitting swan song, only Ricky didn’t have the sense to take the opportunity to retire.
It was sad, and no surprise to me, to see him come undone at the hands of the South Africans. In his final series, Ricky Ponting scored 32 runs at 6.40. And that while his new captain and other team mates made mountains of runs. Ponting’s final over went . 4 1 w 4 4 Two batsmen either side of his wicket hit three fours. For contrast, Michael Clarke came to the crease and hit his first two balls, the last two balls before lunch, for resounding boundaries. I don’t know if he was making a point or not but it was impressive.
For all of Ponting’s final woes, he was given a resounding send off. In what was known to be his final Test, the fans at the ground were delirious when he went to the crease and returned. Unfortunately, the interval between these events was not very long. Even Nathan Lyon was given the most wonderful ovation a night watchman has ever received as he did an excellent impersonation of Ponting towards the end of day one. Captain Michael Clarke, who has always been very supportive of Ricky as “elder statesman” added real meaning to his words when he was too emotional to go on in an interview discussing Ricky’s retirement. And as I have already touched on, the South African’s were magnificent in their treatment of Ponting. The guard of honour harked back to a forgotten era and singled Ponting out as a special player. I hope Ricky was able to enjoy all of those honours, even though scoring some runs would have greatly enhanced his enjoyment.
I sometimes conclude a tribute with the words of another author. This time I am pleased to use my own. I wrote an article about Ponting in March 2006, titled “King Ricky”. He had just concluded a summer in which Australia had crushed South Africa home and away and he had scored centuries in both innings of a Test match on three occasions. Three times in one summer! I wrote this, and I think it sums up Ponting’s ability quite well, so I will repeat it:
He may not have the explosiveness of Gilchrist, the grace of Chappell (GS), the audacity of Richards (either one), the mongrel of Chappell (IM), the footwork of Slater, the power of Pollock (Graeme), the timing of Hussey, the flair of Lara, the magic of Tendulkar or the sheer numbers of Bradman but RT Ponting has all of the above attributes in measures not too far short of the benchmarks.