“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” sang John Lennon famously. Cricket is like life. Both require one to constantly evolve and be at the top of one’s form. Those who adapt survive. But then survival is not given. Cricket, like life, is unpitying — it gives no quarter and shows no mercy. It treats heroes and plebeians alike. One is only as good as one’s last innings. One may have won many a laurel playing cricket, but then the game itself does not reserve anything special for the ‘greats.’ Whether it is one’s first match or last match, one is treated in the same impassive manner; what counts is one’s concentration and skills on the given day and at the given moment on the pitch, and not what one accomplished there in the past.
So it did not come as a surprise when Australian Ricky Ponting’s last hurrah turned out to be a damp squib at Perth’s WACA Ground in the recent third and final Test match against South Africa, which the visitors won comfortably by 309 runs to retain the No.1 Test ranking.
In retrospect, what Ponting spoke at the press conference, announcing his decision to retire from the game, could not have been more ironic: “As far as I’m concerned, my immediate focus now and the team’s immediate focus is what we’re presented with tomorrow [the third Test match between Australia and South Africa at the WACA Ground]. That’s an unbelievable opportunity. We’re going into what I believe is almost like a grand final. I’ve prepared well this week, and as I said to the boys this morning, I’m hungrier than ever and want this win probably more than any other game I’ve ever played in. So I’ll do whatever I can this week to contribute to a great team performance. If that happens to lead to a win for the team and we get back to the top of the tree and No. 1 in the world then there’s no better time for me to finish anyway. This week we’ve got a big job ahead, and especially me, I’ve got to lift my level of play from where it was last week to where it is this week. I’ve got a good feeling I can do that.”
In the event, Ponting’s scores of four and eight in his last match were certainly not the kind of contribution he was waxing eloquent about. As Ponting stood lingering on the ground for a few moments, after his all-too-brief innings, with his arms raised, acknowledging the standing ovation of the crowd and the warm applause of the South African players, he must have become a tad philosophical about how abruptly and unceremoniously it all came to an end.
But then it was so for many of Ponting’s illustrious predecessors. When Don Bradman walked in through a tunnel of cap-doffing Englishmen to take guard in his final Test at The Oval in 1948 against England, he would never have imagined that he would end up with a blob against his name in his final innings. But that exactly was what happened. Ponting at least lasted 23 balls for his final score of eight. The great Don was bowled second ball by Eric Hollies for what would go on to become one of the most infamous ducks scored in Tests. And given that Bradman needed just four runs for a Test batting average of 100 (he finished with 99.94), his last-innings zilch was a cruel joke pulled by the game of glorious uncertainties on one of the all-time greats.
The other batting greats did only slightly better. While Wally Hammond made 79 in his last match against New Zealand, Allan Border chipped in with 17 and 42 not out against South Africa, Martin Crowe with 15 against India, and Steve Waugh with a decent 40 and 80 against India in their last Test matches, all of which ended in a draw.
And Ponting was not alone in ending up on the losing side in his last Test match. The West Indian great Garry Sobers, who went on to score 150 not out in his last innings in England (at Lord’s in 1973) after having a peg of brandy, which he describes with his typical insouciance in his autobiography, would make only 0 and 20 in his last Test match against England in Port of Spain in 1974, which the West Indies lost. Viv Richards couldn’t take his final walk back to pavilion with his distinctive swagger as he managed only two and 60 in his last Test match against England, which his team lost. The elegant Brian Lara’s last Test match score of 0 and 49 and the rock-solid Rahul Dravid’s one and 25 neither added to their stature nor to their team’s chances against Pakistan and Australia respectively.
Sunil Gavaskar, who is often admired for timing his retirement from cricket to perfection, couldn’t either help his team’s cause in his last Test match. With his valiant 96 in the second innings (21 in the first) on the dustbowl of Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore, Gavaskar almost pulled off a spectacular victory for his team against the Pakistani spinners Iqbal Qasim and Tauseef Ahmed. As luck would have it, Gavaskar had to dolefully watch his team lose the series-decider and his final match by 16 runs to archrival Pakistan.
Such cricketing instances of man-proposing-and-cricket-
But, Mousie, thou art no thy lane [you aren’t alone]
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley, [often go awry]
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promised joy.
(Venkatesan Iyengar was a speedster who could swing the ball both ways. He captained his school team at the zonal and district levels. His boyhood dream was to open the bowling for Team India in the august company of his idol Kapil Dev. Even today the sight of Kapil makes him nostalgic)