Growing up with Ricky
My emotional development as an adult seemed to run parallel with Ricky Ponting's career, as he was the cricketer who took me from my teens into my 30s. When he started playing in the sickly green of Tasmania, I was just a dorky teenager; when he walked off the WACA for the last time, I was holding my newborn son in my arms.
Ponting was, for better or worse, the player of my generation. The player who was always there as a young kid or an old bloke. The one whose game I knew as well as the Marge v the Monorail episode of the Simpsons, or the Epping Train line I grew up on. I obsessed over Ponting's batting like you do when you're a teenager. I told my friends he would became a great No. 3 for Australia. I tried to bat like him. I supported him when he played against Australia for Australia A. He was Tricky Ricky to my friends and me, and we all waited impatiently for him to become a great.
Most Australians guys of my age wanted to be Steve Waugh. Yet most of them were more like Ponting. Quick to anger, slow to mature, unforgiving, prickly, uncomplicated, aggressive and honest.
So honest that his face would tell you everything you wanted to know. A Ponting press conference was often redundant, a series of close ups throughout the day had given you everything you needed to know. Ponting gave great face from the time he was a cocky young kid who was one of the last to give up the helmet, until he walked out onto the WACA trying to pretend it was business as usual to bat one more time.
As a batsman, and fielder, Ricky was something I just instantly fell for.
His batting was also easy to read. His shots were crisp and final. The ball was delivered, the ball was hit. The only time his batting looked fussy was when he spent time playing with the pitch. The delicate way he could pick off some loose bit of grass that only he could see. The double hand slaps he would give at anything that had floated onto his surface. Or the double tap at the pitch he would do with his right hand. His fielding was just as final as his batting; everything he did was final and clean, and often brilliant. In the field he also had the spit in the hands followed by a deep rub together, like his saliva was somehow more adhesive than everyone else's. And considering his fielding, maybe it is.
That's what you notice when you see a guy as a young man, and you follow him until he becomes an old man. You don't get that with a player you first saw when you were 8, or 28. It's different then.
I was old enough to get cricket when Ricky came around, and once he came around, I knew this was a player for me. Forget that his drives looked like gut punches and his pull shots were balletic artistry. It was what his batting stood for. Ponting didn't bat for records, milestones or adulation. He batted to win.
The great batsmen are often selfish creatures who would run out their children if it meant they get to continue doing what they do best. That wasn't Ricky. When people talk about him being an all-time great, and comparing him to Lara, Tendulkar or Kallis, if it's done purely on stats he can't compete. Lara batted for the adulation of the masses, Kallis because it's what he does and Sachin Tendulkar just bats because he loves batting. Their batting selfishness is what makes them great players.
Ponting bats like a team player. His style was closer to self-immolation than selfishness. If Ponting had to play a big shot to get things going, then he played it. It was simple, and very Ponting like. The team comes first, second and third, so that the team only comes first.
When Kallis moved down the order to No. 4, he did it because it would produce more runs for him. Four is an easier position to bat at. Lara stayed at No. 3 because that is the ego seat. Ponting stayed at three, for as long as his skills allowed it, because at three he had the most say in the game. That is why he batted.
Every time Ponting entered the field he had to control the game. He had to make sure his team was in a better position than they were before. He had to win.
All professional athletes like to win. Most love to win. But for players like Ponting, it was almost a sickness. At its best it drove him to be one of the best batsmen of a generation, and one of its greatest cricketers: a hard-nosed professional with the skills of a champion and the fight of a battler. At its worst it made him a sulky brat who couldn't understand why he ever had to go through losing.
Winning and losing also define him far more than the other greats. No one ever blames Kallis for South Africa's underachievement. Ponting won more Tests than any other human being, but by the end it were the losses that defined him.
In batting he channeled all that rage to become a great. In captaincy the rage ate him up and he became a bore.
As a captain I never liked Ponting.
Captains are like politicians, you either intrinsically feel like they're right for you, or you don't. And I spent years moaning or mocking Ponting as captain. I moaned at 13th men annoying him in the Ashes, misuse of bowlers, the team Australia bubble, his part in the Monkeygate Test, and when he almost had a mental breakdown in the middle of the MCG during his last Test as captain because he thought he could see the hotspot mark from 120 metres better than an umpire staring at a screen inches from his face. I've called him the hairy-armed troll, been so angry at him I could have broken a change-room TV and hurled abuse at him from beyond boundaries in three continents.
Our one-sided relationship was never at its best when he was captain, only when he was batting.
Yet in the wider world, the angrier and grumpier Ponting got, the more iconic he became. A hero and leader under pressure to those at home, a villain and bully to those away. A very Australian cricketer.
Ponting could have played on even with his bad form. The selectors may have given him a Test against Sri Lanka to prove himself just because of who he is. And against a failing one-man attack like Sri Lanka's he might have made enough runs to make it to India, his batting Hades. But he seemed to know that he just wasn't good enough to help Australia win matches anymore. And that would have been worse to him than knowing his skills were on the wane.
Ponting announced his retirement the day my son was born. While my wife was in agony, I was thinking about how I would explain an entire lifetime of living with Ricky to him.
I'd definitely tell him about his scratchy 88 batting at No. 3 against Courtney and Curtly, every detail of being at the Wanderers for the '03 final, the last over of a List A game I saw him get smashed for 21 runs, that everyone said he was a good footy player, that he once was the face of Milk in Tasmania, watching him make a half-century in his first Test knock at the G, the 257 he produced there years later, and the many f***-you hundreds he made when he was at his most angry at the world. But mostly I'll tell him that despite how I loved Ricky as a batsman, and hated him as a captain, that he was the player I grew up with.
Not my favourite, but the player that was always there. And when my son gets bored of me going on about this old cricketer he's never seen, I'll just play him a collection of Ponting's pull shots that I've found on the internet.
Every generation has their own players, and while I may prefer Trumper, O'Reilly or Harvey, Ponting is mine. To me his batting says more about Australia than the flag, national anthem, Australia Day or even the baggy green.
Ponting is the Australia I grew up in. But it's now just a memory that an old man will tell a young boy.