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March 21, 2013
Ricky Ponting likes the tough school. Whether it be his Mowbray upbringing, his teenaged elevation to the cricket academy and then first-class ranks, a Test debut at 20 or his return this season to a Sheffield Shield competition now dominated by pace bowlers, Ponting's appetite for challenges is undimmed.
Though he admits the circumstances of his increased availability were less than ideal - a retirement from internationals pressed by a poor series against South Africa - Ponting has delighted in playing near enough to a full season for Tasmania. It has resulted in his most prolific at Shield level in 20 years, the competition's player of the year award, and the Australian Cricketers Association garland as player of the month for February.
The last summer in which Ponting did not have his state appearances curtailed by the national selectors was 1993-94. Back then, Australian batting was blooming into the sort of period oft-described as a "golden age". No fewer than six players - Michael Bevan, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Darren Lehmann, Dene Hills and Greg Blewett - topped 1000 first-class runs for the summer. Another five, Ponting included, reached 900.
Hayden's effort was most astounding, tallying 1136 runs in six matches for Queensland, and coshing seven hundreds. All this by a batsman still seven years away from becoming a regular at Test level. Ponting's 896 Shield runs that summer helped his state into their first final, and impressed all observers with their poise and power. Two decades on, and Ponting may yet surpass that tally in this year's decider, but in a competition now far more difficult for batting.
There has been debate over the past several years about whether or not surfaces more conducive to seam and swing have detracted from the development of Australian batting. Arguments have been raised about how representative such pitches are when mos Test strips are considerably flatter and drier - none more so than those currently undoing Michael Clarke's team in India. However Ponting is adamant that the redressed balance between bat and ball will be beneficial.
"There's no doubt that pitches these days are more bowler friendly and that trend has been building over the last four or five seasons," Ponting told ESPNcricnfo. "I think the overall standard is still particularly strong and as you can see from this year, the competition is very competitive.
"I don't think it's hindering development at all. In fact, it's a positive thing for batters who have to work harder in tougher conditions to consistently score runs. The only thing is that the selectors have to appreciate that there is a trend for lower scores because of these conditions."
These lower scores are reflected in the recent records of younger batsmen coming through in each state. Where once an average of at least 50 was required to push a case, now 40 seems closer to the norm. Ponting, though, has shown that it is possible to score heavily in this climate. For that he offered generous praise to the coaching and culture of the Tigers.
"There's such a great culture here and so much of the credit for that has to go to Tim Coyle and his staff," Ponting said. "They have always been able to blend experience with talented younger players coming through the ranks. If you look at this season, that's exactly what we have.
"Senior players like George Bailey, Ben Hilfenhaus, Tim Paine, Xavier Doherty, Alex Doolan and Luke Butterworth have been working so well with the next generation of young players like James Faulkner, Jonathan Wells and Jordan Silk.
"Doing the whole pre-season with the boys was just fantastic and so was playing the games at the start of the season. But then to come back at the pointy end of the season and make the Shield final like we did has just about capped off a wonderful year for Tasmanian cricket. Hopefully we can finish it off with a trophy next week."
Personal possession of the Shield trophy is the one thing that has eluded Ponting over his career. Tasmania's two wins took place in his absence, and last year's final was narrowly lost. Given how strongly he has performed this summer, it would be bold to doubt that the time has come.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Daniel Brettig
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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