Inspiration is often derived from leaders. But to construe inspiring as an objective of leading is to miss the point. And it is precisely in this context that followers of Australian cricket probably put Steve Waugh in the list of its greatest and finest captains even as Ricky Ponting is given his due grudgingly especially by followers of the Australian team outside of Australia. Those who compare Waugh’s tough but honest ways and Ponting’s victory-at-all-costs approach put the New South Welshman in the “fair” category and Ponting in the “unfair” category.
Ask any Indian, and he will swear by the senior Waugh twin’s name just as he will swear against Ponting. Sydneygate is just one of those nasty sporting episodes that went too far and any skipper would have been made to look like a goose: that Ponting refused to back down made him appear more so. Ponting (and in his company others) might have been wrong as South – and they have never claimed to be saints – but to fail to give the little Tasmanian his due wholeheartedly using the fairness argument seems to be a subversion of fairness. Indeed, this author believes firmly in fair play himself and can possibly never love Ponting. One should not however forget that sport owes its remarkable richness to the variegations of its characters.
And discounting the rise of Ponting from being Tasmania’s blessed but notorious prodigal son to the leader of the finest one-day and test teams in Australian cricket history is to miss an important chapter in all cricketing history. Every great has had a failing: Tendulkar’s has been, till recently, his inability to complete matches; Lara’s reportedly was selfishness; Bradman missed the immortal 100 as average by 0.6 but he missed it all right; Ponting’s crime evidently is that he has been ruthlessly single-minded in charge of world beaters who shared the vision with fixity. And it is a better crime than having a soft underbelly like some Indian teams of the past.
When Ponting broke through with 96 about fifteen years ago at the WACA against Pakistan, he was already touted to be one of Australia’s future greats. But not every young genius deals with early accolades with the shoulders of a giant like Tendulkar did. One of the reasons why the Indian Little Master is revered the world over has to do with the poise with which he has kept the extra-cricket elements he has received through cricket away from his game, thereby being wedded to it and it shows in his staggering consistency. Lara’s career which concurred with a period of petty politicking in Windies cricket that ultimately affected the players, however, swung between the sublime and the subterranean, often within the same series. Ponting’s issues were off the field. Alcohol is no alien to a Punter nicknamed so on purpose and did its job; the Australian skipper, I still remember, even got a black eye once. But rather than dilly-dallying like Jesse Ryder, the New Zealand left-hander who has himself dealt with issues relating to alcohol lately, Ponting came out, confessed his vulnerability, worked his way out of it, married a lawyer and took charge of his life. And as the new millennium arrived, Ponting’s fitness in the field and hunger for runs were already eliciting comparisons respectively with Jonty Rhodes and contemporary Herschelle Gibbs and Lara and Tendulkar. Some would die to be compared with the likes of those for just a day; Ponting has managed to keep the comparisons going, often rising about them, for a better part of his tremendous career.
His fiasco against the Turbunator in the epoch-making 2001 series in India, a place where he has not set the scores ringing, was an aberration and he made up taking toll of bowling attacks round the world making big runs when Australia needed it the most. Arch-foes England met a new Ashes champion, one who would by the play of irony be the first captain to concede the Ashes (possibly thrice) in several years, and had no responses but nor did the Indians. To sum up the World Cup 2003 finals was a no-brainer: Ponting (who was already skipper of the one-day team) launched a blitz that left India clueless. Harbhajan Singh was particularly mauled and revenge was sweet. And though India drew the historical Steve Waugh farewell series later in the year, Ponting was thick with runs becoming the first Australian since Bradman to score consecutive double hundreds.
Through the rest of the decade, leading upto 2008 Ponting played many other stellar innings besides pouching catches – at gully, the slips, point, and just about anywhere – he was not supposed to take and hitting the stumps with staggering consistency. The need to review Ponting’s runs assumes significance because it is said that a leader is only as good as his team. Half a Ponting would still have led Australia to the 2007 Ashes whitewash, the 2003 and 2007 World Cup wins or a number of other triumphs which I forget because of the consistency with which victories came for the Australian juggernaut. Messieurs Warne, Hayden, Langer, Martyn, McGrath and Gilchrist are not names that need to be led. But Ponting still towered in a team of greats by being the team’s best batsmen. That he scored his runs at number 3, played only in fourth gear and was still prolific meant that Ponting was the opposition’s most prized wicket, the noughties’ highest run scorer and world’s most prolific number 3 in terms of runs and second only to Bradman in averages.
And now the great run machine is on the wane; or perhaps as the soothsayers, naysayers and associates say, he has waned. It is hard to blame the factions from which those whispers come: after all, they have high-credentialled names like Ian Chappell. Grapevine and the media, and it is difficult to fathom whether they are different these days, say that Ponting may call time if they strip him of the captaincy. Ponting has an ego the size of the international batting colossus he has built but the problem is that the ego was fed by the very runs that fortified it.
The colossus sadly does not seem like Work in Progress anymore. Its construction struck everyone with awe and may soon stand “completed” for everyone to stand and judge. Ponting as the world and its uncle knows has never been a master strategist as a captain and his lack of runs have therefore been doubly accentuated. Unlike India where Dravid, another fabulous number three who seems to be going nowhere with his mind or runs, has managed to hold onto the wreckage, Australia will not give a magnanimous rope and Ponting who has emerged from and lived with the hardnosed system will know it better than most.
That his runs have reduced to drips when the rest of the batting line-up, barring to some extent Hussey senior, Haddin and Shane Watson, too is in introspection mode has made Ponting’s insipid run-scoring phase seem balder for not long ago did Ponting score those fine fighting half-centuries in India or the brisk 50-odd in the second innings of the first Ashes test at Brisbane. With Ponting staring at the third Ashes defeat as a captain and the first at home – and Ashes Echoes has it that neither is simply another dubious distinction to be forgotten with time like King Pairs or having a Chris Martin batting average –, the drought seems even more cruel especially as Ponting’s young opposite number keeps Trotting along, almost making it seem like the Aussie bowling is a feast for him. But such is the irony and ire that sport is ordained. To not await the destiny and deal closure speaks of prudence; to stay on, linger and change it is fortune that a few – like Tendulkar or Muralidharan – are blessed with; for the rest, the ending is grey and dragged out, a nostalgic reproduction of glimpses of a golden age rather than the spontaneous sunshine of fluency.
Only the most absurd optimist or skewed mystics who can make rains can prevent England retaining the urn at the end of the Boxing Day test. Even if that happens, there is no assurance Australia will win at Sydney; Perth last week already seems like a hyperbolic fluke and a rude joke played on the Australians. To cut it short, Ponting’s undeniably superb legacy as a captain is all but lost: he will be remembered not as the guy who supervised a 5-0 Ashes whitewash of England but as the man who lost the campaign thrice not least because the human memory is fickle and remembers only the most recent tidings. But Ponting’s batting legacy should not be lost in a heist of commonsense or bitterness. Whether the Sydney test is Ponting’s finale or the beginning of the end only time and selectors can tell.
Eventually, Ponting’s end will come. Steve Waugh once said that Ponting would overtake Tendulkar’s hundreds. To even spare a thought to that prediction evokes titters or tears now – as the case may be – but Waugh would not have foreseen either Tendulkar’s incredible second wind or Ponting’s simultaneous autumn. And armed with a technique that could charitably be described as grotesque, Ponting would not find his place in the list of the game’s graceful greats either. We have spoken enough of his charred legacy as a skipper and his lack of popularity as a player. All the same, Ricky Ponting’s cricket at its peak was aggressive, forthright and single-minded, qualities which characterise the Australian landscape. He may not be missed in due course even by the Australian team for dispensability is taken too literally in sport. And irrespective of when the sun sets over Ponting’s extraordinary career, the little Tasmanian’s membership in the company of the world’s greatest batsmen is a formality now as it has been for some years. Gainsaying his greatness – with or without a #Pontingface – would amount to the gainsayer’s being diagnosed with cricket’s own strain of partial amnesia.