England exam for Ponting's pupil
Were Ricky Ponting not Australia's most prolific international batsman of all, and Alex Doolan, the Tasmania batsman, not a studious Test match aspirant, the younger man could have been accused last summer of sustaining a level of fascination that bordered on the unhealthy. Seeking a way to graduate from the ranks of mid-tier Sheffield Shield players to those who played for their country, Doolan shadowed his fellow Launceston native with rare persistence.
No longer part of Australia's limited-overs or Twenty20 teams, Ponting spent a rare extended period with Tasmania during the 2012-13 season. Doolan took full advantage, spending every available minute watching how Ponting batted, fielded, trained and prepared for Tasmania. Even Ponting's eating and drinking habits were dissected. At some point it is not hard to imagine Ponting raising a quizzical eye to his pupil and muttering the words "still here?"
The answer, of course, was yes, and Doolan used the knowledge he was gaining to major effect, peeling off centuries against Victoria and then the touring South Africans that showcased an elegant top order method. Following a winter's learning on various overseas assignments - none of them of the T20 variety - a match-winning Sheffield Shield hundred for the Tigers against New South Wales has set Doolan up for a major examination with Australia A against the English tourists in Hobart. More runs on his home ground this week may well push Doolan into the Ashes squad.
"I think I came on in leaps and bounds last year thanks mainly to Ricky Ponting," Doolan said. "Under his tutelage, I learned more in 12 months than I had in the first five years of my career. I've got a lot to thank him for. It's not necessarily what he's said or how he's spoken to me, it's just what I did was sit back and watch him.
"I watched him play, I watched him train, I watched him eat, I watched him drink, I pretty much just watched him 24/7 every opportunity I got. So it wasn't necessarily anything he said to me but it was just an opportunity to play with the best player I've ever seen and also just be able to learn how the best player goes about it."
There is a wider truth to the Doolan example, one that Ponting himself has been pressing on his current tour of the country in promotion of his autobiography. Young players will learn most fruitfully by close observation of and advice from the players who have successfully traversed Australia's cricket grounds before them.
"Alex was a guy who averaged high 20s in first-class cricket, but the times I batted with him last year he got a hundred every time," Ponting said last month. "It's just that stuff that can't be replaced and that's not happening down through the system."
Ponting's advice and example arrived at a time when Doolan was maturing in other ways. Having moved down from Launceston as a teenager to pursue cricket, he had taken time to grow from rookie to fringe player, to consistent selection, to batting leader. Nearing 28, Doolan is batting and speaking like an adult. He has the chance from Wednesday on to show how much he has grown, and how much Ponting's example can be emulated.
"I'm not entirely sure how to put my finger on it, [but] I've grown up a lot in the last couple of years," he said. "I've gone from being a player who is just in the team to maybe someone the rest of the team is looking on to perform. It's no secret the Australian team hasn't been performing the way everyone would've liked, so I'm lucky I'm in the boat with quite a few others and fortunate to be playing this game against England."
Doolan seems at ease with the fact his summer, and perhaps his life, could turn on the events of the next week, and it helps that he has, to some degree, been here before. Asked often about playing Test cricket in the days after his unbeaten 161 against Dale Steyn and company last November, Doolan was unable to follow up the innings in a meaningful way. This was partly due to a pick and mix schedule that had him looking fluent for Tasmania one week, then sitting on the bench for the Melbourne Renegades the next.
"A lot of water has passed under the bridge since [the unbeaten 161]. Back then it was a real thrill to play against the best Test playing nation in the world. I enjoyed that a lot. It was lucky I had the success that I did. But I don't think you take that into this game," Doolan said. "To be jumping between formats from first-class cricket to one-day cricket to T20 cricket is a challenge for any player. But it was such a long time ago that it's right at the back of my mind at the moment."
Instead, Doolan's mind is full of four-day batting thoughts, the elegant shots he played at Blacktown to vanquish the Blues, and the example of Ponting. It is no surprise to learn that Doolan is reading the book of his mentor, though he used its 700-page length as a sidestep around the current controversies surrounding its publication. "I don't know exactly what's been said, I'm not up to that chapter in Ricky's book yet, so maybe when I get there I'll be able to comment a little more..."
Doolan will hope he can frustrate England's bowlers with similar deftness.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here