Team-man till the end
Ricky Ponting symbolised the Aussie virtue of grit while being a strong guiding force for his mates
Scene II: The venue is Sydney and the second Test against India in January this year. After chipping Ishant Sharma to mid-on Ponting scampers for a single to reach his 40th Test hundred. It’s perhaps the most deserpate dive Ponting has ever made in his career and he soaks in the applause with raised hands and a soiled shirt.
Scene III: Ponting addresses a press conference on Thursday and details how emotional it was for him and his Australian teammates to go through the retirement talk. It isn’t the grim-faced, gum-chewing, narrow-eyed competitor from Down Under. Sitting in the WACA press conference room is a man who has realised that he has nothing more to contribute as a cricketer to the team he once took to the zenith of world cricket, and time has come for him to move on.
A hard-nosed but cheeky competitor, a champion who never minded presenting an ugly face and a committed team-man who constructed a strong bond with his colleagues — Ponting was all this. He wasn’t just another senior player in the Australian dressing room, but was a mentor and friend to all. Current Aussies skipper Michael Clarke shed more light on that unfamiliar side of Ponting.
“He did so much the world never saw,” Clarke said. “The time he gives his team-mates, the advice he offers, the help he gives you at training, he picks you up when you are down, he gives you a kick up the backside when you need a kick up the backside,” he added.
The words could be taken for a customary round of praise, that’s more mandatory in nature, for a long-time teammate who is about to walk into sunset. Normally, Australian captaincy – irrespective of the time he spends at the helm – is a prelude to the retirement of a player. Even some of the great Aussie captains such as Greg Chappell, Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh didn’t continue in the team once they had done with their term.
Ponting broke that tradition. His third Ashes defeat as skipper prompted the selectors to replace him with Clarke, but the Tasmanian remained a part, an integral one at that, of the team till he decided to hang his boots. It’s a tribute to Ponting’s character and value and proves the genuineness in Clarke’s words and feelings.
But as Clarke pointed out, the outside world rarely saw the genial face of Ponting; only a few fleeting images came out in the last phase when the stories like him supporting a struggling Rahul Dravid or mentoring some of the young Aussies came out. Perhaps, he feared that letting know the world of his softer side would defile the cloak of toughness about him.
For the public, Ponting was a gladiator who never asked for a quarter and he gave none to his rivals. The series against India in 2008 offers a perfect example.
It was in Sydney during the second Test, umpires asked Ponting whether an edge by Sourav Ganguly had carried to Clarke at slips, and the then Australian skipper nodded in the affirmative. That was just a small part in the game of one-upmanship played by Ponting and his mates in that Test that almost brought the series to a halt and nearly spoiled the diplomatic relations between India and Australia.
However, Ponting never felt he or the team did anything wrong. Ponting even went on to rate the Sydney victory as one of the finest in his career, and justified the manic celebrations after the win. His words even infuriated the Australian media, usually die-hard supporters of their team in crisis of any magnitude.
Ponting’s behaviour on those days was quite unbecoming of an Australian captain, but it, perhaps, stemmed from his belief in his team’s greatness and invincibility and the reluctance to accept that the downward journey had begun after nearly 15 years on the top.
But that day never came when Ponting slipped into a reflective mood, and accepted his and the team’s conduct at Sydney was wrong. It may never come. A person with as much strong conviction as Ponting is incapable of introspection.
Even for such a strong person like Ponting, the last couple of years would have been very difficult. The loss of captaincy might have prompted a self-search about his utility in a team that’s in transition, and the drying pool of runs might have put a few gremlins in his mind. But he battled on, and you would have expect nothing less from Ponting either.
There was that series against India, his favourite whipping team after England, earlier this year when he conjured a hundred and his sixth career double hundred. He was back in all majesty, driving, pulling and hooking with the authority and audacity of the old.
It was, as it proved later, a last reminder of Ponting’s sublime skills, and a torrid outing against South Africa at Adelaide a fortnight ago confirmed to him and the world that his powers have waned beyond the recapturing point. He moved away without any theatrics, ending a 17-year career through a simple, to the point announcement.
Ponting was unfazed. But his mates’ cheeks were drenched in tears. It was the finest tribute, revealing all about him — a prizefighter who stood for his team.