November 29, 2012

Ponting's Last Bow!

It is likely that two Pontings have  burned themselves for all time into the minds of Indian cricket fans the world over. And what contrasting Pontings they are: the batsman who wrested a World Cup finals from the opposition by half-time with an innings for the gods (no pun intended!); the man who was part - and some say at the very heart - of the controversies following the Sydney Test. My favourite Ponting, however, batted in another game where India was again the opposition. Australia arrived at the World Cup 2011 Quarter Finals in Ahmedabad having just lost their first Cup game since 1999, not nearly the force they were in the previous decade; nor was Ricky Ponting the free-spirited audacious willow wielder of his formative years. Yet, playing within himself, he scored a century characterised by such grit and self-restraint that I couldn't but help applaud the innings.

It was like seeing an undemonstrative skipper stand firm on a sinking ship, his commitment writ large in his eyes and his purposefulness at the crease. He would inevitably leave, too, but not until he had seen others go, and not after he had given his best. It is difficult to like Ponting, or, for that matter, even admire him. By some reckonings, including that of the late Peter Roebuck, he played the game too hard. However, now that he is set to leave international cricket , I recall with fondness how his strength complemented, and did not emerge in spite of, vulnerability during that match at Ahmedabad.  It was a Ponting we were not used to, self-aware, controlled and deep; it was, dare I say, if only for a few moments, an endearing Ponting.

Ponting's no-nonsense approach to cricket - not for nothing is he called the most uncompromising player of his generation - and his adamant desire to win matches for Australia have been criticised by fans and experts alike. His own personality - his nickname, his mischievous laughter which become it, and his brashness - might have contributed to the scathing judgments. It is also not outlandish to surmise that Ponting was as an Australian captain compared, especially by non-Australians, to his predecessor Steve Waugh, the most unyielding man to have walked the cricket field, but a gentleman revered by many. Unsurprisingly, he lost out more as a man than as a captain in popular opinion.

Ponting was never a master strategist either, a fact that Ian Chappell repeatedly accentuated at many points during his captaincy tenure, though he did not need to be with the teams he commanded. Still,  he led from the front with the bat, like Michael Clarke and Alastair Cook today,  both setting up and winning games for Australia, always talking and playing an aggressive game. The fact that he is the only cricketer to have been part of 100 Test victories is a telling statistic, arguably the most relevant number in a team game. It will probably stay perched alongside 99.94, a hundred international hundreds and 800 International Wickets at least till the end of my lifetime.

The biggest blot in Ricky Ponting's fine CV will undoubtedly be the 'A' word. Such is the importance of the Anglo-Australian rivalry in cricket, even during these times when the sub-continent (read 'India') virtually runs the sport, that he will likely be remembered as the captain who lost three Ashes including, criky, one at home. I wonder if generations hence Australia's 5-0 bossing  of England in 2007 -  the series which was to be Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Justin Langer and Damien Martyn's last- would be mentioned in the same breath as the three defeats that Ponting presided over as an Ashes captain.

Many of us were thrilled at the end of the 2010-2011 Ashes: the magisterial Aussies had been brought to earth in their own den. For the Australian cricket team, a Test-series loss to England at home was, perhaps, a fitting final scene in a climactic decline that had taken years coming. Ponting himself had turned in only one half-century in the series whilst Trott and Cook topped the run charts. For once, the Australian cricket team and the pugnacious Australian skipper had both been subdued by an England team at the height of its powers and a perfectly conceived - and executed - campaign, once they ensured that the loss at Perth was no less than a note of caution against complacency; no more than an aberration.

The tidings of 2011 - the Ashes loss, the handover of captaincy to Michael Clarke, the continued struggled for form in South Africa and the drop from no. 3 to no. 4 -  must surely have hurt Ponting. However, just when it seemed like he might see sense in the calls for retirement, he warmed (to) the 2011-12 home summer against India with a couple of 60's against some ill-conceived short-pitched bowling that fed his famous pull. There was a poignant moment as he, then, brought up a statuesque hundred at the Sydney Cricket Ground: Rahul Dravid, who who had been encouraged by Ponting to keep at it during lean times, applauded the reemergence of a fellow great to form. Ponting then returned to Adelaide Oval, and turning the clocks backwards,  produced a fluent double-hundred, his second there against India as Australia made a clean sweep of the series. Emboldened by the reversal in his and the team's fortunes, he was arguably justified in having an eye on next year's back-to-back Ashes. What better than a last stand with a bat against the arch-rival, the competitive voice inside would have said. Unfortunately that is not to be as the voice has not been able to arrest his waning form against a high-class South African pace attack.

Ponting may yet have a fairytale ending where it all began with a 96 on debut versus Sri Lanka. A hundred at the WACA would be a perfect end to a career that has seen three World Cup triumphs (one more World Cup final) , and has helped the Australian team stay at the top of the ODI and Test rankings for many years. On the other hand, Ponting may be content with a couple of his casual blinders in the slips if that takes Australia to victory and returns it as the top Test team in the world again. One can, however, rest assured that South Africa will come hard at him. I wish, for once, that Ricky hits back harder and walks back to a standing ovation, his bat held aloft, not just in acknowledgement but also to celebrate a final accomplishment.

Well-timed, Mr. Ponting, and very well played!

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