Michael Jeh January 14, 2010

Ponting pulls ahead of the rest

As he nears the end of a brilliant career, Ponting will need to decide if he will go down in flames, hooking and pulling like a man still in his pomp, or whether he can shelve the ego and grow old gracefully (in a cricketing sense)

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Ricky Ponting’s instincts, footwork and eye make him a magnificent sight when taking on the short ball © Getty Images

Let’s get one thing straight up front. Ricky Ponting will forever be remembered as one of the greatest batsmen to have ever played the game. That much will never be questioned, regardless of what he achieves in the twilight of his career. He has also been one of the best attacking players of short bowling; not just competent at avoiding it like Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Rahul Dravid and others, who generally eschewed the hook and pull strokes, Ponting’s instincts, footwork and eye make him a magnificent sight when taking on the short ball.

What will be interesting to see is what old age will do to Ponting. Or put differently, what will Ponting do with old age?

I write this post just as Ponting was dropped on nought on the hook shot (again) and then promptly played an ambitious pull a few balls later. Clearly, ego, instinct or his own unwavering self-belief will not allow the older Ponting to put those shots away early in his innings, despite recent failures and much commentary on that very issue. A young man he is no longer but perhaps someone forgot to tell him. Or perhaps he just won’t listen.

As he nears the end of a brilliant career, Ponting will need to decide if he will go down in flames, hooking and pulling like a man still in his pomp, or whether he can shelve the ego and grow old gracefully (in a cricketing sense). He will be defying just about every other great modern batsman before him if he chooses to take the road less travelled, the path that will see him continue to attack the short ball, regardless of pitch conditions, age or field placements.

Players like Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar, Richie Richardson, prolific players of the hook and pull shots in their prime, faced similar conundrums as age crept up on them. All three chose a more conservative approach, either playing the shot judiciously (Tendulkar), virtually giving it away (Waugh) and crashing spectacularly (Richardson). I can’t recall what Viv Richards did towards the end of his career but like Border, he did drop down the order in the fading years.

Matt Hayden probably kept playing those booming pull shots all the way to the end but his technique was essentially different to Ponting. He didn’t hook instinctively but he tended to muscle his pull shots, sometimes off the front foot, sometimes even in the arc between midwicket and mid-off. To him, it was almost a deliberate statement of intent, of domination, of complete contempt rather than Ponting’s instinctive swivel.

Ponting clearly has no intention of going quietly. Not for him, the gentle drop to No. 5 or 6 in the order and a career that finishes off in quiet accumulation mode, still as efficient as ever but lacking the rollicking strokeplay of youth. Tendulkar is very much in that mode now, almost more reliable than he ever was but happy to let the memories speak for themselves. Brian Lara was heading that way when he pulled up stumps and other instinctive players of these back-foot shots like Aravinda De Silva and Inzamam-ul-Haq certainly found themselves too slow or too wise to keep having a crack at every short ball as they neared their inevitable retirements.

If you can think of any other great batsmen who voluntarily changed their game to cope with advancing years (especially if they gave away their pet shots), please write in and tell us. I'm sure there will be some fascinating histories to mull over.

As I conclude this post, Ponting is still at the crease on 10 not out, still playing the shot with mixed success. No doubt, Pakistan will continue to pepper him for the duration of his innings. It was always a high-risk strategy, bowling short to Ponting. Only time will tell if the risk premium has now swung against Ponting for the first time in his life.

As for my money, I’m still not prepared to bet against him. Having missed him early, I reckon he might just go on to make them pay. Whatever happens, his wagon wheel in the fine leg to midwicket area will have plenty of lines on it I daresay.

(Note: The article was sent in by the author well ahead of Ricky Ponting's century during the first day's play between Australia and Pakistan in Hobart.)

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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