By Garfield Robinson
It was his pull shot that most amazed. He would be in position so early that you could reasonably wonder if he had powers of precognition, like he knew exactly where the ball would land and that the pull shot was the best response. It was his pull shot that was his most destructive weapon, the shot that caused bowlers the most exasperation; and it was his pull shot --when you realized he was growing less adept in its execution -- which hinted that Australia’s greatest batsman since Bradman was not the player he once was.
A strong case can be made that Ricky Ponting was the game’s most effective player. For most of his career he was his side’s best batsman. He totaled over a hundred wins, 48 as captain, the most by any player. Only Tendulkar has more international runs than he does, and only The Indian superstar and Jacques Kallis have more international hundreds. Ponting was also involved in three World Cup wins, two as captain, and of the 375 ODIs he played, Australia won 262 of them. These are startling numbers in an age of startling numbers. But he was not just appreciated for the runs he provided. Even now he remains highly valued in the dressing room, and is an important ally and advisor to captain Michael Clarke.
When Ricky Ponting was a teenager at the Australian Cricket Academy, Rodney Marsh declared the precocious Tasmanian the best 17 year-old batsman he had ever seen. It was high praise indeed, especially coming from someone as forthright and as grizzled as the former wicket-keeping great. But it was praise that was far from being misplaced. Nicknamed Punter for his love of gambling, his wagers would have been very lucrative if they turned out as well as Marsh’s call when he first laid eyes on him.
He liked a drink too, and this got him into trouble on a few occasions early in his career. One night in Sydney, after a loss in a one-day game against England, Punter’s drinking led to an incident at a nightclub that left him unconscious, wearing a black eye, and resulted in him being dropped from the Australian side. Shockingly, the batsman said he could not recall the incident, but admitted to his drinking problem and vowed to seek counseling and return “squeaky clean.” There was also an earlier incident at a Calcutta nightclub for which he was fined. Yet significant as these incidents were they are mere footnotes in a long and successful career; incidents that he was able to overcome to the point that he was able to captain his country.
Ponting was as ferocious a competitor as there ever was in the game. Winning, it appeared, meant everything to him. Always up for a scrap, his unyielding and brash approach sometimes pushed the bounds of good sportsmanship and general decorum, often irking opponents and the public in the process.
The 2007/2008 series against India had reached Sydney when an assortment of umpiring errors and Australian “gamesmanship” conspired to deny India what would have been a well-earned victory. Near the end, Ponting adamantly claimed a disputed catch. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Roebuck, now deceased, had this to say: “The Indians were convinced Ponting, the captain, had grounded a catch he claimed on the final afternoon at the SCG. Throughout those heated hours, the Australian remained hostile, kicking the ground, demanding decisions, pressuring the umpires.” It was an ugly display that severely angered their opponents, the Indian fans, and many Australians too, some going as far as demanding the sacking of their captain.
Always drawn to India’s cricket I was also angered at the time, even at the part played by my own countryman, umpire Steve Bucknor. Decent man that he is, however, I knew there was nothing sinister in his decisions, and it was nothing more than a case of a previously high-class umpire going on till he was past his best -- much like Ponting did.
The master batsman has been way below his best for the past two or three years. His battering of a rather toothless Indian bowling attack during India’s last visit Down Under might have delayed his departure and given his fans hope that Punter still had something left in the tank. But he didn’t look himself against the West Indies in the Caribbean and had a rather embarrassing first two tests in the current South African series. He finally realized it was time to go.
It could be argued that Ponting weakened the team by hanging on for too long. But I daresay his country meant so much to him that I am sure he meant no harm, and we have all seen champion sportsmen who when approaching the end, remain convinced that the magic would soon return.
Whatever his faults – and he had a few – there can be no doubting his devotion to his country and his love for the great game and its traditions. He wore his tattered baggy green, which had to be replaced early on because the first one was stolen, for most of his career and the manufacturers had a dickens of a time getting it off his head in order to effect repairs. He was not the greatest fan of the T20 version of the game and resisted attempts to shortchange first class and test cricket in order to accommodate cricket briefest form.
There are many followers of cricket, especially in India, who dislike the great Australian. Their attitude to him is understandable, for he was an uncompromising adversary. But even his detractors would have to agree that his career was long and glorious, and that the Tasmanian who liked a flutter, was a warrior born.