Edgbaston 2009 and all the talk was about ‘aura’ and the loss of it. The object of the conversation was the Australian cricket team, but it could equally have been about their leader, and one of the greatest batsmen Australia has ever produced, Ricky Ponting. Three years later, aura fading all the while, Ponting has now bowed to the inevitable.
The question that haunts all ageing sportsmen, including Ponting these last few months and Sachin Tendulkar right now, is this: how do you know whether a poor run of scores can be attributed to the vagaries of form, or something more fundamental? How can you know for sure that what any great player comes to see as the natural order of things will not reassert itself?
There are clues which no self-deluding sportsman can deny. Fast bowlers will recognise a battered body that refuses to carry them through the rigours of the day. Spinners might notice the snap that has gone from the fingers or wrists. All sportsmen know deep down when the fight has disappeared, when the fire has gone out and when desire is no longer there, this last being the most critical attribute for any long-lasting competitor.
But can a batsman be really sure when his eyesight has gone or when his reactions have slowed just enough to bring him back to mortality? Tendulkar, after all, was not the only batsman to have struggled at the Wankhede. What if Monty Panesar’s ‘arm ball’ in the second innings what no such thing; what if it simply didn’t turn as was intended, so marking out Tendulkar’s performance in the match as unlucky rather than incompetent?
Alec Stewart is a case in point. Stewart had a particularly poor match against New Zealand at Edgbaston in 1999. He was 36 years old and not only did his normally secure glovework desert him in that game, but he had a stinker with the bat, too, lasting six balls, scoring one run. Quite a few commentators were certain that Stewart’s eyes had gone. And yet he played successfully as a batsman and a wicket-keeper for four more years. He’d had a bad match that was all.
For that reason, once the desire is still there many great batsmen go on just a little too long. The evidence needs to be incontrovertible that any decline is irreversible and not down to just bad luck or the odd bad game. Over the last couple of years, that evidence for Ponting has been mounting to the point at which it has become undeniable.
Last week, he was bowled twice at one of the flattest pitches in the country, by Jacques Kallis in the first innings and Dale Steyn in the second. Each time he was playing defensively; he described his efforts as ‘tentative’. Before that, fast bowlers who previously would have been pinged to the fence were hitting him on his shoulder, or his elbow, or the chest. He had begun to look jumpy at the start of his innings, as he had against England throughout the Ashes series of 2010-11.
It is the right time to go. Rather now, on an emotional and hopefully productive high at the WACA- a ground that has always suited his superb and instinctive back-foot game- rather than struggling through another Ashes series, with impertinent questions snapping at him, as a yard-dog at a postman’s heels. There cannot be a cricket lover out there who will not wish him well.
For whilst Ponting became something of a pantomime villain in England, during the Ashes series of 2005 and 2009, deep down I think English cricket fans admired him. It would be ridiculous to describe Ponting as a loser- he is, in many ways, the ultimate winner- but in leading Australia to defeat in three Ashes series, England fans would have appreciated the dilemma and the challenge facing a man who straddled two eras of Australian cricket- one undeniably great and one undeniably less so.
And he led as he batted: straightforwardly, uncompromisingly, honestly and competitively. Anyone- well some of us like to think that anyone- could have led Australia through their greatest years, but it took more character to lead them through decline, one reason why, when Ponting’s threadbare team won in South Africa in 2009, he described it as one of the greatest victories of his
The young boy from Mowbray, Tasmania, who Rod Marsh described as the best young batsman he had ever seen, became an undeniably great player. He was in the classic tradition of Australian number threes: attacking, aggressive, liable to hook rather than duck- and he played the hook and the pull better than anyone-, lithe and quick on his feet. He became a better player of spin, although it was never his greatest strength. The accumulation of 41 Test hundreds, and 13,366 runs, confirms he was a player for all seasons, all conditions and all-comers.
The statistic, though, that may please him the most when he retires is the one that shows he has played in more than 100 Test match wins for Australia. That is how I will remember him: in an age when the pursuit of statistical excellence has become corrosive, Ponting’s overriding motivations were healthy and pure. There was a competitive if rugged honesty in everything he did.
There was a moment during the final Test at the Oval in 2009 that summed him up perfectly. He had lost a critical toss and his team were losing the Ashes (again) but there he was in the engine room at silly point, hoping for an edge from Matt Prior off his part-time spinner Marcus North. Prior drove and the ball bounced up and hit Ponting flush in the mouth. The batsman enquired of the Australian captain’s health. Ponting spat out a tooth and some claret, folded his arms and looked Prior square in the eyes, unmoved. Bloodied and unbowed for seventeen years in international cricket, but beaten now at last.