On Ponting: Remorseless Excellence and Poetic Melancholy

Posted on December 21, 2012


By SB Tang

“I was there,” said a sports fan in some corner of the globe as I typed this sentence. But, on 3 May 1995, hardly any Australians were there at Sabina Park in Jamaica. Ricky Ponting was there though. He was there, as a goateed, 20 year old member of the touring party when Australia won the fourth and final Test by an innings and 53 runs to clinch the series 2-1, becoming the first side to defeat the West Indies in a Test series since 1980. He was there when one great cricketing empire fell and another rose to take its place. He was one of the few, the lucky few, who witnessed the dawn of what Gideon Haigh subsequently dubbed The Green and Golden Age.

When Ponting announced his retirement from Test cricket 17 years, six months and 26 days after that fateful day in the Caribbean, I tried to recall his iconic individual innings. I was surprised to discover that, apart from the truly obvious ones (Headingley 2001, the 2003 World Cup final, and Old Trafford 2005), I couldn’t remember that many.

Then I realised why. When it comes to great collective enterprises, we, as human beings, tend to remember their hard-earned creation and inevitable demise, rather than the years of plenty in between. The likes of the Waugh twins built the Green and Golden Age between 1995 and 1999. Which is why their great innings — Sabina Park 1995, Old Trafford 1997, the Wanderers 1997, Port Elizabeth 1997, Headingley 1999 — roll off the tip of the tongue.

Ponting, by contrast, matured and peaked as a Test batsman between 1999 and 2008, during the halcyon years of the Green and Golden Age. He played most of his great innings during the empire’s peak. That’s why I couldn’t remember more than a handful of them off the top of my head. Well that, and the statistical fact that he played so many — nine more Test tons than Steve Waugh and 14 more than Allan Border from roughly the same number of Tests — that they all blurred together like a soft focus, artfully pornographic highlights reel. The mere differential between Ponting and those two greats constitutes a very good Test career in itself: 14 Test tons is only two less than Michael Atherton scored in his entire 115 Test career.

Between 1999 and 2008, Ponting scored 9488 Test runs at an average of 61.61. His career Test batting average stayed above 55 between 2 January 2005 and 3 January 2010. Ponting didn’t establish the Australian cricket empire, but he inherited it and expanded it to every far-flung corner of the cricketing world through his batting. As a batsman, he was the Green and Golden Age made (freakishly hairy) flesh — grizzly, aggressive, dominant, constitutionally competitive, remorselessly excellent and, above all, a winner of Test matches. During those salad days, Ponting never saw a fast bowler he couldn’t hook, an international trophy his team hadn’t won, or an international record that couldn’t be broken. He smashed bowling attacks the way Adam Richman devours animal flesh: hungrily, without remorse and at a scarcely believable rate.

Ponting’s trade mark swivel pull/hook shot — played instinctively to anything fractionally short of a length, regardless of the bowler’s pace or the state of the pitch — functioned like a well-oiled bolt action rifle: he leant forward then, as soon as his surgeon’s eye picked up the length, recoiled back onto his back foot in a flash, cocking his bat high towards the sky as he did so, then pulled the trigger, swinging the bat down in a vicious arc which met the incoming ball with the crisp crack of a gunshot heard around the world from Leeds to Colombo to Durban for close to two decades. In less than the blink of a mortal eye, the ball rocketed to the fence like an exocet missile. God help you if you happened to be fielding at short mid-wicket.

That swivel pull/hook shot defined Ponting, marking both his greatness and his inevitable decline. In December 2009, the 21 year old West Indian speedster Kemar Roach bowled a first ball bouncer to the 34 year old Ponting at the WACA. Ponting, as he had done so many times before, rocked forward then back and pulled the trigger on his swivel hook … and miscued it. The next ball, Roach sent down a 146 kilometre per hour bouncer and we heard a familiar crack, but it was the sound not of bat striking ball, but ball striking human bone — Ponting’s elbow, as he ducked into the short ball. At that moment, deep down, we knew. We knew that it was the beginning of the end, that Ponting’s once God-like reaction time had been dimmed by the mortal passage of time. How could we not? The evidence lay before our very eyes.

In the three years and 29 Tests after that elbow injury, Ponting averaged just 37.19 with the bat. Ponting’s predecessor as Australian captain, Steve Waugh, famously ditched the hook shot to rationally reduce the risk of being dismissed and increase the probability of scoring runs. But Ponting kept playing it. Right until the very end. He played it twice across the two brief innings of his final Test, at the WACA against South Africa — but instead of that familiar gunshot crack when his bat met the ball, there was the gentle tap of a diligent high school woodwork class, and, on both occasions, the ball trickled towards the boundary like a stream slowly dying out after years of drought.

Ponting was, like Waugh, a team man — a “self-abnegator” to his very core, but in an entirely different way. Batting at five, Waugh suppressed the natural, debonair strokeplay of his youth in order to maximise his run-scoring and set the highest price in the world on his wicket. In that way, he set an example to his teammates and maximised the team’s chance of winning the Test match. Batting at three, Ponting’s self-abnegation, by contrast, was that of the last Australian captain to dominate at number three for the bulk of his career — Ian Chappell. It was Gideon Haigh who, in his first great work on cricket, used the apt but mildly esoteric term “self-abnegator”[1] to describe Chappell, and when he explained why, he could just as easily have been writing about Ponting — “[h]is trademark … hook of often premeditated defiance”, his resolve “to hook every bouncer ‘as an example’” to his teammates, and his seeking of “walls to put his back to”.[2]

As a cricketer, Ponting was blessed with an abundance of God-given talent. Of that there can be no doubt. When he first emerged from the suburbs of Launceston in the early ’90s, Australian cricket scribes were fond of telling us the story of his grandmother dressing him in a t-shirt emblazoned with the words: “Inside this shirt is an Australian Test cricketer”. He was four. He was unquestionably the most talented batsman of, arguably, the greatest generation ever produced by the most successful cricketing nation on the face of the earth. But it was Ponting himself, not the cricketing Gods, who worked tirelessly to wring every ounce from that natural talent. And he succeeded. He bled his talent dry to produce 13,378 Test runs, 41 centuries and a Test batting average of 51.85. It is rare, in any walk of life, to see the most naturally talented artist in any field extract every single drop from their wellspring of talent — because theirs is so much deeper than others’, they simply don’t need to. But Ponting did. I can pay him no higher compliment.

His blue-collar work ethic never wavered. Even at what he, but no-one else, knew was to be his last training session as an Australian Test cricketer before he announced his retirement, he was one of the last to the leave, batting on in the Perth rain, long after most of his teammates had adjourned indoors. Like the seniors of the Permian Panthers in the 1988 Texas State High School Football Championship semi-final, Ponting knew that the forthcoming game would be his last, that his opponents were the very best, and that victory would take the team he loved back to the top of the tree. The Permian Panthers were watched over by HG Bissinger who chronicled and immortalised their feats in Friday Night Lights. Ponting was watched over by Australia’s greatest living cricket writer who recounted the tale in a podcast. And like the Panthers (who lost their semi-final played in the pouring rain to the eventual champions), Ponting failed in his final match, perishing for four and eight, as his team lost their world Test championship bout by 309 runs inside four days.

Ponting’s end was, as Jon Hotten observed, one bereft of “novelistic symmetry”, but there was certainly a poetic melancholy about it, of the same kind experienced by the ’88 Panthers and preserved so beautifully by Bissinger in Friday Night Lights. But Bissinger’s book didn’t end with the ’88 Panthers’ semi-final defeat. There was an epilogue — one year later, their successors, the ’89 Panthers won the Texas State High School Football Championship.

Ponting soldiered on when past his prime to help the Australian cricket team in a delicate transitional phase. In this collective task, he succeeded — the still breathing (but, barely, after the 2010–11 Ashes) corpse of the Australian team was revived to the point where Australia are now third in the world Test rankings, just nine rating points behind the number one ranked South Africans. With back-to-back Ashes series against world number two ranked England on the horizon, who is to say that Ponting’s tale will not end with a similar epilogue — his groomed successors’ reclamation of the Ashes and the world number one Test ranking.

[1] Gideon Haigh, The Cricket War (1993) 14.

[2] Ibid 13–14.