AFTER MAKING an attacking 70 in the Bengaluru Test a couple of years ago, Ricky Ponting assumed full responsibility for Australia losing the match. “I should have made a double century. A 70 is not good enough,” he said. Ponting averaged 56 for the series, but felt he had let the team down as India won 2-0. That probably revealed more about the batsman than his famed cover drive or arrogant pull shot. It also showed why he finished as the most successful captain (48 victories) and player (108 wins) in Test cricket. Ponting was, in a sense, impervious to criticism for no one was as harsh on him as he himself was.
With over 13,000 runs in either form of the game — he was no great fan of the third format — Ponting’s place in the pantheon is secure. Only Sachin Tendulkar has scored more and over a longer period of time. Finishing on the winning side in 108 of 168 Tests meant that his batting had a greater impact on the team’s success. He was the golden boy in a golden period of Australian cricket; with bowlers like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, batsmen like Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, and later Michael Clarke ensuring the team won with a regularity that was almost Federer-like.
When he was 17, teammates called him ‘Sachin’, yet the two modern greats had little in common as batsmen except the instinct to dominate. Ponting is as Australian as Tendulkar is Indian, and it is impossible to imagine either being anything else. Yet Ponting wasn’t an Australian cricketer in the way Ian Chappell was, despite a shared allergy to authority and the passion to shape the national team in their own image. For all his apparent brashness, Ponting was essentially a country boy, a little diffident, a little surprised by how far he had come.
Despite his public image as a maverick, Ponting was an old-fashioned cricketer, dedicated to Test match play and preaching the primacy of the longest format of the game. He grew up obsessed with the game, and spent hours at the nets or around areas where players congregated.
In his Bradman Oration, he spoke about how he would, as an adolescent, walk into dressing rooms merely to touch the bats and pads of the players and placed everything back in the kit bags so no one noticed they had been moved.
You cannot play over 150 Test matches without that kind of obsession. Tendulkar had it, Rahul Dravid did and so too did Steve Waugh, Ponting’s predecessor as the captain of Australia.
Ponting left the game with dignity; Waugh’s farewell was long drawn out, another predecessor, Kim Hughes, left in tears. There was a suggestion of a quivering lip at the press conference where Ponting announced that the Perth Test against South Africa would be his last. It was his captain Clarke who broke down. It will be interesting to see if Dhoni will burst into tears when Tendulkar calls it a day.
Ponting who left school at 15 (“I never went back”) began work as a groundsman at 17, the year he made his first-class debut. In later years, a liking for the dog track earned him the nickname ‘Punter’, and a fondness for alcohol led to a confession of a problem after a punch-up in a bar. Ponting had to overcome greater odds than his rivals as the greatest contemporary batsman — Brian Lara, Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis — and perhaps that made him tougher, and better able to appreciate the less gifted in his own teams.
Steve Waugh wrote about him thus: “This guy is the complete package, having converted his natural gifts into a polished product through dedicated practice, an inquiring mind and a hunger for runs, all of which separate the good from the great.” One toughie thus put his stamp of approval on another.
IN A world obsessed with rankings, most were happy to give the second place to Ponting as the greatest Australian batsman, the top slot having been taken by Don Bradman nearly seven decades ago. It meant that Neil Harvey and Greg Chappell, the previous holders of the title, had to be pushed down a slot. And what of those who believe that Victor Trumper, and not Bradman, was the greatest Australian batsman? None of this seems to affect Ponting, however. It was a blessing that when he burst on the scene, he was not dubbed the ‘new Bradman’.
At his peak, there were many, especially in Australia, who believed that Ponting was better than Jonty Rhodes at cover point
The hunger for runs, the ability to score quickly and the desire to show the bowler who was boss were certainly Bradmanesque in their import. But there were some irritants. His record in India, for example. Or his captaincy. He lost the Ashes thrice, and that takes some living down.
But batting and captaincy were only two aspects of the cricketer. He was also one of the greatest all-round fielders the game has seen. At his peak, there were many, especially in Australia, who believed that he was better than Jonty Rhodes at cover point. His catching at slip was in the Chappell-Mark Taylor-Mark Waugh class, while in the outfield there was no one to challenge him. Only Rahul Dravid had more catches than his 196 in Tests. His ability to hit the stumps on the run from close has probably earned him more run outs than any other fielder.
It was not surprising that Michael Clarke burst into tears at the end. Ponting was both friend and mentor. He had shown rare magnanimity in easing the path of the younger man to the top job. In the end, he showed a fine sense of timing too, departing with dignity, and on his own terms. It takes great self-awareness to proclaim, as he did, “I am not good enough,” and leave nothing but the records and the tears behind.
Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack