A favourite shot is like having a best mate, an old pal always there to get you out of trouble. Robin Smith and the square cut. Sachin and his beloved straight drive. Geoffrey Boycott and the forward-defensive. Viv Richards and the whip through midwicket. Greg Chappell, maestro of the on drive… And rarely in the history of cricket has there been a love as ardent as RT Ponting's for the pull shot. He told the story of it in his Masterclass series that is currently running on Sky Sports, handled deftly by Ian Ward.
It was a rich and complex relationship, a tale of talent and its ceilings, of the origins of greatness. Ponting was a prodigy from the wrong side of Tasmania's second city, Launceston, a cricket obsessive who would sneak into the rooms at Mowbray while the senior teams were playing, to riffle through the kit, weigh the different bats in his hands. There was magic in them; he could feel it.
He was never going to be a tall man, and that was exacerbated by the fact that he was so good from an early age. He grew up competing against kids bigger, stronger and faster that himself. He knew well the feeling of facing up to bowling that should have been too much for him. By eighth grade he had his own bat contract. Soon Rod Marsh was calling him the best 17-year-old batsman he'd ever seen.
Ponting told the story of a drill that Marsh had created at the Australian Academy of Sport. A bowling machine was set to its top speed, 100mph, and angled to pitch the ball short. The idea was to work on evading the bouncer, learning which ones to duck and which to sway. To make it harder, Marsh erected a screen in front of the machine so that the batsmen could not see the angle of its head, and thus get clues on line or length. They began the drill. Ponting danced away from the ball with an ease no one else possessed.
"Just try hitting one," Marsh said to him after a while.
Ponting nailed a pull shot behind square.
"Do that again," Marsh said, wondering if it had been a fluke.
Ponting did, again and again, showing Marsh the full range of the stroke, which he could hit anywhere from mid-on to fine leg, depending on the line of the ball. Marsh instructed the other players to try. None could lay a bat on the ball and what's more, several were struck in the attempt.
The story becomes even more remarkable when experiments reported by the late Bob Woolmer in his book The Art and Science of Cricket are recalled. A team of researchers led by Tim Noakes at the University of Cape Town asked the recently retired South Africa opener Peter Kirsten to bat against a bowling machine that had its speed constantly advanced until Kirsten could no longer hit the ball. For Kirsten, who had faced many of the world's quickest out in the middle, that point came at around 80mph. Noakes concluded that batsmen relied on a complex series of visual clues from the bowler's run-up and delivery to predict the length and line of the ball, and when these were removed, the task became far harder.
From these stories comes evidence of the extraordinary level of Ponting's talent. What he had in his eye and hands could not be taught. Not yet out of his teens, he was doing something that very few people on earth could accomplish. How did it happen?
Ponting himself explained. As a kid, always playing against older, faster bowlers, he'd instinctively found a way to cope. His backlift was made entirely with his wrists, his hands still level with his waist and close to his body. His natural trigger movement was to go back and then step forwards as he cocked his wrists. At the moment the ball was released, his front foot was hovering in the air, the bat acting as a crucial counterbalance. From that position he found it natural to drop the bat onto the short ball, and hit it pretty much where he wanted.
"Through my career, when I got in trouble it was because the movements weren't in sync, and my front foot was already planted as the ball came down," he said.
Ponting used the pull shot to disrupt the bowler, because his batting credo was to dictate. "Every ball, my first thought was four, then three, then two, then one, and only then a dot…" His pull, often executed to deliveries far fuller than most players would contemplate, forced bowlers to pitch up. From there he would drive them down the ground.
"The straight drive was very important to me too, because it was saying to the bowler, you can't be short and you can't be full. Basically I felt that he had a spot of about nine inches that he could pitch on to make me defend."
Nine inches. The pull was more than just a favourite shot for Ricky Ponting, it was the key that unlocked the rest of his game, the entry point of his dominance. A combination of nature and nurture made it uniquely available to him, and he articulated brilliantly what it had meant to his career.