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When Ricky Ponting wakes up on Test match morning, he is not the type to help himself to muesli and a Swisse Men’s Ultivite pill only to spend the next half-hour wondering whether he should have gone for a couple of bananas instead. On Monday at the MCG he genuinely did go bananas – thinking he’d seen an inside edge, then getting hissy when three umpires insisted he hadn’t. But none of that made today a day to ditch the habits of a lifetime and start second-guessing himself. Instead he went on radio and TV. Heat of the moment, he explained, dunno what came over me, blahdy blah … And then he blew a little raspberry. In “my heart” and in “my mind”, he still reckoned Kevin Pietersen had inside-edged the bloody thing.
So if this was to be his seventh-last day as Test captain, maybe even as a Test cricketer, he’d stare it square in the eye with that old greyhound squint. Out he bounced, the same as he ever was, lean, baggy-greened, hungry-looking, his creams dazzlingly creamy against his sun-browned forearms. He stationed himself out of position at mid-on, to protect his battered pinkie, safe but not hiding, not even for a second. He spat on his palms. He urged on his men. He tinkered with his field settings and he fetched bowlers’ caps off umpires, to save his bowler the walk. Seldom did you spy Ponting staring off aimlessly towards the tram tracks of mid-distance.
When, after 20 minutes, a catch was there for the catching, it was Ponting who caught it. Another near-catch looped over bowler Ben Hilfenhaus’s head, and it was Punter who gave Hilfy two consoling slaps on the shoulder. While Ryan Harris writhed on the ground, a pincered crab on the sand, Ponting crouched glaring at Harris’s sockless left ankle, thinking perhaps that if he glared at it long enough the bone might magically heal before his eyes. When a half-shout went up for an attempted lbw hoax he didn’t join in – no blowhard insincerity today – and nor did he hoop and holler when a tailender got out. Ponting, unlike his underlings, simply smiled and jogged in, the ninth man to reach the team huddle and the last one to leave it, not missing the chance to pass on a nugget or two's wisdom to his bowler.
Here – whisper it – might be an afternoon to savour, England’s lower order knocked over and 53 promising runs on the board as Ponting, on his way out to bat, feigned a single, respectable-looking defensive stroke. This too was promising, a far cry from the flotilla of jittery swishes he’d rehearsed as he dashed out on Boxing Day. Today he jogged on the spot, glanced at the sky, dropped his shoulders and waltzed on out there, the claps of 68,000 petering out as Ponting got to within a dozen yards of the pitch. The crowd’s ambivalence – half-willing him on, half-annoyed by the prat – was palpable.
Long gone are the days of a 21-year-old Ponting skipping onto the back foot and upper-cutting Ambrose and Walsh. Those days feel almost sepia-tinted in the memory. Now he greets nearly every ball, especially early on – and lately there’s been nothing but early on – with an exaggerated stride forward, a sort of she’ll-be-right-mate thrust. Except she wasn’t right. She was decidedly iffy. One ball ballooned wide of slip; but off Ponting’s shoe. Another one did catch the edge; but he’d relaxed his grip and the ball plodded to ground, trickling through the gap where third slip should have been.
It was Ponting’s first boundary. It had taken him the best part of forever – 40 balls. His next boundary came quickly, an instinctive jump across the crease and a flick off his hip. Deep in the mazy byways of the Ponsford Stand, the Dean Jones Bar erupted. He followed up with a hooked single – a proper back-foot stroke – and went to tea 19 not out. And now the crowd’s warmth was the thing that was palpable.
On this day at this coliseum seven years ago, he’d smacked India’s bowlers for 257. “Ponting played,” wrote Greg Baum, “in that perfect place where timing, technique and confidence meet.”
Today, on 20, he jabbed a crooked bat at a straight ball and got an inside edge – an unmistakable inside edge, this one – onto middle stump. And away he trotted to that dank place where agitation, human fraility and gnawing self-doubt meet.
Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket CountryFeeds: Christian Ryan
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Christian Ryan lives in Melbourne, writes and edits, was once the editor of The Monthly magazine and Wisden Australia, and now bowls low-grade, high-bouncing legbreaks with renewed zeal in recognition of Stuart MacGill's retirement and the selection opportunities this presents. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and Australia: Story of a Cricket Country