Australian cricket's soul, mate
Five years ago, Australia went on an ODI tour of New Zealand without a resting Ricky Ponting. In their final warm-up series before the 2007 World Cup, the tourists were stunned by a 3-0 defeat. They were led by Michael Hussey, and after the three games he was desperate to see Ponting again. "It's pretty difficult and I feel pretty demoralised really," Hussey said. "I'll probably take a little while to get over it."
Those words echoed back from the past when the news filtered through that Ponting had chosen now as the time to take a more permanent rest from his role in the Australia team. Bad as Hussey felt then, cricket the world over is feeling similarly empty about Ponting's loss to the international game. The tears on display at the WACA ground from Australia's captain Michael Clarke hinted at the painful truth that it was not only runs, catches and run-outs being lost with Ponting's exit. It is not too melodramatic to state that with Ponting, Australian cricket loses something like its soul.
Ponting's attitude to playing the game was uncompromising, but so too was his love for it. In the age of Twenty20, Ponting clung to values fostered in his working class origins in Launceston, Tasmania, and strengthened by years as a young batting urchin in the dressing room of David Boon, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, among others. His views on the game were simple, and at times during his captaincy of the Test side his tactics could appear inflexible. But Ponting's love of cricket was such that he could always be relied upon to defend it with as much staunchness as he played it - this is not a laurel that can be placed so naturally on many of his contemporaries or successors.
Never was Ponting to be more angry than when his integrity was questioned twice in 2008, during the heated aftermath of the Sydney Test and again after an over-rates fiasco in Nagpur, both against India. He was a polished press conference performer, always answering as candidly and honestly as he could to questions, however banal. But at the SCG he very nearly lost his cool, pointing his finger at the Indian journalist who had asked about a grounded ball on the final afternoon. It was used at the time as an example of Australian aggression or arrogance, but it now seems fair enough to observe that Ponting's anger was justified - his loyalty to the game can be judged by his tackling of three topics in particular.
T20 cricket never sat with particular comfort with Ponting, and while still captain of Australia in the format his indifference to it may have held the national team back in the first two editions of the ICC's World T20 event. But his reluctance to embrace it was born of his own experiences as a youth, when he discovered the best way to learn to bat was to play in matches where he could do so until someone had the skill or good fortune required to dismiss him. Take for example these words in Sri Lanka in 2011, when pondering the effect of T20 on Australian batting.
"Cricket for me, when I was growing up, if I was batting, it meant I was batting until someone got me out, and if that took them a week then that's how long it took them," Ponting said. "For the guys who played in my era, that's what it was all about - not going out there and facing two overs and then being told that you had to go and stand in the field; that's not what cricket is. And that's the worry I have about a lot of the developmental phases. Even Under-17s and Under-19s now, they're playing T20 games in national championships, and at the detriment of two-day games.
"Good state players these days are averaging 35. If you were averaging 35 when I was playing, your dad would go and buy you a basketball or a footy and tell you to play that. So there's areas of concern there. I don't know how you change them. Everyone we listen to says that kids want to play T20 cricket, but the real cricket-loving kids? They don't want to play T20 cricket; it's the kids that aren't really that good or technically that good who want to play T20 cricket."
In 2009, when Ponting's former Tasmania team-mate Jamie Cox floated the suggestion of moving early season Sheffield Shield matches to venues in Queensland and the Northern Territory to create more room for what was then a proposed expansion of the Big Bash League, there was no surprise when the Australia captain voiced his opposition. Ponting's belief in the primacy of Test cricket, and the Shield below it as the proven pathway competition, goes well beyond the pleasantries uttered by administrators.
''There seems to be a lot of talk about ways and means to make the Big Bash bigger and give more time to the Twenty20 game,'' Ponting said. ''Moving games to the Top End, you're going to lose something there somewhere. Those young guys are not going to get the chance to play at the MCG and the SCG and those sort of venues, [and] play at the Gabba early in the season when the wicket is green. Those things are what have made Australian Test players as good as they are, because of the way that they have learned to adapt to different conditions -- and on the conditions that you play Test matches on.
"Look, I'm sure they'll find some way around it. I'm not sure what exactly it's going to be because it sounds like at the moment all the talk is about just trying to make the Big Bash even better. And I'm supportive of that because it's obviously been a great tournament this year. 'But I just don't want it to interfere with young and up-and-coming Test players getting the right opportunities and experience to play good hard, solid Sheffield Shield cricket.''
The decline of the Australian team in the seasons between 2008 and the loss of the Ashes in 2010-11 had as much to do with poor management around the side as Ponting's leadership of it. His tactics were stilted at times and his views unbending, but it was also true that he had long argued for many of the structural changes around the Australia team that the Argus review ushered in. Ponting benefited from the enthusiasm injected by a new captain in Clarke and a new coach in Mickey Arthur, while lauding the direction the team was now taking. In it he saw the sort of attention to detail that he had demonstrated in his own game down the years, even if his batting had started its slow and inexorable decline, stayed momentarily by last summer's Indian jaunt.
This season, Ponting was better prepared than perhaps at any other time in his career. Refreshed by time at home, reinvigorated by Shield matches with Tasmania, he was sure the South Africa series would provide an endorsement of his capabilities at the age of 37. But the lack of runs that followed were compounded by the manner of his dismissals, pushing out at one he need not have in Brisbane, then bowled twice in Adelaide. There had been an air of melancholy about Ponting on his return to the scene of his earliest days at the Academy, as Adelaide Oval disappeared, soon to be replaced by four fifths of a football stadium. Once again, Ponting spoke candidly about what was lost.
"That's definitely something we'll notice when we come back in years to come," he said on match eve, not yet prepared to admit retirement. "One thing that has always defined this ground and made it different from most around the world is what you actually get to see from the middle. A lot of the other places you go are like big concrete jungles. You see corporate boxes, dark windows, corporate logos and sponsors all over the place and that's something you haven't had to ever see much of at Adelaide Oval. They're doing their best to keep what they can, with the old scoreboard and the hill area and some fig trees down the back, but other than that it'll end up looking like most other grounds around Australia."
Without Ricky Ponting, Australian cricket will look a lot more like most other sports, having lost a man who held its values as dearly as any, even if at times his aggression on the field did not endear him to other nations. Quite apart from the task of following him as a batsman, those that follow have a mighty job ahead to emulate Ponting as a figurehead for the game, espousing the ideals and virtues that cricket was built on. No wonder Clarke wept.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here