Ricky Ponting — In a class of his own

As a batsman with incontrovertible self-belief and consummate mastery, Ricky Ponting washed away every challenge with aplomb © Getty Images

 

By Bharath Ramaraj

 

Launceston is a stunningly beautiful city in Tasmania, blessed with picturesque streetscapes, waterfront eateries, magnificent parks and bewitching vineyards. About two decades ago, the small but compact city of Launceston also became world famous for producing one of the finest Australian cricketers of all time in Ricky Thomas Ponting.

 

On December 10, 1995, the precociously talented, Ricky Ponting with a brisk gait to the crease matched two of the finest stroke-makers from Down Under in Michael Slater and Mark Waugh stroke-for-stroke, in his debut test against Sri Lanka.

 

The 20-year-old was at his irresistible best, and looked well on course to make an awe-inspiring century in his debut Test. But cruelly when he was on 96, Pakistan umpire Khizer Hayat made an erroneous decision to adjudge him out leg before. Instead of brooding over that dismissal for long, the champion cricketer from Tasmania banished his inner demons, and went onto conquer towering peaks, in the years to come.

 

If we rewind back in time to January 1986, a young boy named, Ponting made a string of eye-catching hundreds on four consecutive days, in the Mowbray Under-13s tournament. Australia’s cricket cognoscenti could sense a prodigiously talented young batsman with burgeoning self-confidence, and having an insatiable hunger to make big scores. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that bat manufacturer Kookaburra gave a him sponsorship contract when he was just 14. It must have felt like a fabled fairy-tale story for Ponting, as very few would receive a bat sponsorship at the tender age of 14.

 

Tragedy though, struck the God-gifted sportsman from Tasmania, as while playing a game of Australian rules football, his hand was so badly damaged that there was an inkling, Ponting might struggle to play competitive sport again. Ponting about his injury, “At one stage I was concerned that the arm injury might also stop me from playing cricket but they [the doctors] did a pretty good job on pinning the bones — and it hasn’t bothered me since.” Ponting in his indomitable style erased those fine lines of pain and distress to convalesce from a career threatening injury, and came out as a true winner.

 

As the years ticked by, Ponting made every former cricketer in Australia sit up and take notice of the wonder boy’s talents. By the early 1990s, he had already embarked on a trip to the Rainbow nation, as a part of the Under-19 development squad. Within a few months time at just 17 years and 337 days, he became the youngest cricketer to play for Tasmania.

 

During his first season in First-Class cricket, he beguiled and bedazzled Australia’s cricket loving public with a heart-stirring century against the much-vaunted New South Wales’s bowling line-up consisting of Wayne Holdsworth, Glenn McGrath and Greg Mathews. The tearaway fast bowler, Holdsworth reportedly bowled 90 mph out-swingers, during his playing days. Mathews was a wily off-spinner in his own right. The match also saw a young pacer by the name of McGrath making his First-Class debut.

 

In that clash of epic proportions against New South Wales, the metronomic McGrath took a five-for. At the other end of the spectrum, the way Ponting weathered the storm of facing a formidable bowling line-up for almost six hours was emblematic of his indefatigable stamina and remarkable resilience.

 

Ponting’s ultra-consistent performances in Sheffield Shield meant that he was picked to tour New Zealand for a one-day tournament as well as to tour the Caribbean in 1994/95. Ponting though, made his Test debut only against Sri Lanka in 1995/96.

 

Those days, as Australian cricket was brimming with talent, Ponting soon lost his Test place to Justin Langer. With Michael Bevan too being picked in the side for his all-round abilities, Ponting found himself wandering in the lonely world of wilderness.

 

With hard work and dogged determination, Ponting worked his way back up the ladder by replacing Bevan for the Leeds Test against England in 1997. In that Test, Australia were reeling at 50 for four with the cream of their batting line-up back in the hut. Ponting too was at sixes and sevens when he faced up to the lynchpin of England’s pace attack in Darren Gough. Once he got his eye-in though, he was unstoppable. He went onto make a mettlesome century made up of a compendium of some of the finest strokes one could ever see.

 

The highlight of that innings by Ponting was the way he strode onto the front-foot on a seaming wicket with dauntless courage to drive Mike Smith down the ground, for a sumptuous boundary. The glorious flourish of his back-lift in that innings was a hallmark of a great batsman in the making.

 

In spite of essaying a riveting century at Leeds, Ponting found it hard to cement his place in the strong Australian middle-order. With glittering stars like Waugh twins [Steve and Mark] playing for Australia, there were only two places up for grabs in their middle-order. It also has to be said that Ponting suffered from disciplinary issues, early in his career.

 

The competition for those two remaining places in the middle-order was so fierce that a string of low scores by Ponting during the tour of India in 1997/98, resulted in other batsmen in the pecking order breathing down his neck. Subsequently, Lehmann replaced Ponting in the Test side, in the Ashes series of 1998/99.

 

When the door was left slightly ajar for Ponting to make his umpteenth comeback into the side in 1998/99 against West Indies, he perhaps knew that it was his final chance to establish himself in the Australian middle-order. In what turned out to be a cut-and-thrust of a Test match at Barbados against West Indies, Ponting carved a niche for himself by essaying a fine century.

 

Ponting’s patient-vigil and great prowess of adhesion at the crease gave ample proof that he had matured as a cricketer, and was ready to shine at the biggest stage. For the first time in his short career, there was a serene calmness about his batting. In short, it was an epoch making moment in the fledgling career of Ponting.

 

After his backs-to-the wall effort at Barbados, Ponting went onto play some spine-tingling knocks for his country. His eclectic mix of debonair pulls and graceful lissome straight drives on a trampoline WACA wicket in 1999, floored the fearsome duo of Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar into submission. In fact, his knock at the WACA capsulized the very essence of his batsmanship.

 

He suffered a minor blip in his career in India in 2000/01 when he couldn’t decipher the wily off-spinner, Harbhajan Singh’s modus operandi. However, by 2001/02, Ponting was an established member of the Australian set-up.

 

With Steve Waugh’s days as the captain of the Australian One-Day team numbered, there was a feeling that Ponting would be appointed as the next captain. During the Test series in South Africa in 2001/02, it was announced that Ponting would take over from Steve Waugh, as the One-Day captain of Australia.

 

Ponting responded to the extra responsibility with a sizzling century in the second Test of the series against South Africa at Cape Town. With the retirement of Steve Waugh from international cricket in 2003/04, Ponting was elevated to the position of captaining Australia in all forms of cricket.

 

He perhaps wasn’t a shrewd tactician, but invariably led from the front with a willow in hand. The way the nerveless and the ace batsman from Tasmania met fire with fire against an Indian side on song in the 2003 World Cup final won’t be forgotten in a hurry by cricket-obsessed fans of India. As it was a World Cup final, Ponting seemed doubly determined to leave no stone unturned in his bid to taste eternal glory.

 

In the all-important Ashes clash in England in 2005, just like a knight in shining armour, Ponting essayed a pugnacious knock at Old Trafford. The formidable England’s pace attack consisting of Andrew Flintoff, Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and Matthew Hoggard were hunting down batsmen like a pack of hungry wolves. However, Ponting with equanimity and poise shepherded Australia to a nail-biting draw.

 

The willowy Ponting was at the peak of his prowess in 2005/06 when he made centuries in each innings against South Africa at Sydney. His coup de theatre act helped Australia to chase down a daunting target in that Test. Even those few remaining detractors of Ponting extolled him for playing like a colossus.

 

Ponting, though, perhaps would regret the fact that he captained Australia to just one Ashes series triumph. Yes, in 2007, Ponting became only the second captain after Clive Lloyd to lift the coveted World Cup trophy twice. But for an Australian or an Englishman, there doesn’t seem to be anything bigger than leading the team to a series triumph in the Ashes.

 

With Australia losing yet again to a rejuvenated English side in 2010/11, Ponting relinquished his Test captaincy by handing over the baton to Michael Clarke. After a disappointing outing in the 2011 World Cup, he resigned from being the One-Day captain as well. By 2012/13, it was crystal clear that it was time for him to hang up his boots and retire. The selfless cricketer retired from all forms of international cricket after playing the Test match at the WACA against South Africa in 2012.

 

Even after his retirement from internationals, Ponting continued to ply his trade in domestic cricket as well as in the Indian Premier League for Mumbai Indians. A few days back, in his last First-Class match for Surrey against Nottinghamshire in county cricket, he bid good-bye to English fans with a sprightly century. When Ponting holds his willow for one final time in the Champions League Twenty20, hopefully, he will get a standing ovation, every-time he turns up for Mumbai Indians.

 

Here was a cricketer who has been showered with medals, accolades and glittering achievements, throughout his career. As a batsman with incontrovertible self-belief and consummate mastery, he washed away every challenge with aplomb. He was a natural fielder who could pluck catches out of thin air, and from his favourite backward-point position consistently hit the stumps bulls-eye. He married his God-gifted talent with a solider-like perseverance in pursuit of unmatched excellence.

 

No wonder, when the hard-nosed former Australian captain announced his retirement, there was an air of sadness in the wonderful world of cricket. Cricket lovers certainly would miss watching Ricky Ponting with his ‘never say die attitude’ engaging in gladiatorial contests, and leading his team from the front to a victory.

 

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)