'Zero tolerance for racism is the only answer'
On the eve of Australia's latest match of the VB Series, Ricky Ponting took a day off from practice to pay a visit to the Docklands waterfront in Melbourne, where he met the crew members of the two ABN AMRO boats that are currently placed first and second in the round-the-world Volvo Ocean Race, having set a world-record breaking pace on the recent leg from Cape Town. He spoke to Andrew Miller afterwards.
How was the boat trip?
I've had a great day so far thanks. We were pretty lucky, as there wasn't too much wind as we left, but it really picked up while we were on board.
Is sailing a hobby of yours, or is this a new experience?
No, I've not done much sailing at all. I actually went out on another bigger yacht a couple of years ago - a Sydney-to-Hobart race winner - but I haven't really done much sailing. It was a bit of an eye-opener today. This is a smaller, faster sort of boat, and with the wind the way it was, we were doing 22 knots at one stage which is quite quick, I believe, in sailing terms. It was good to sit back and watch their team operate, and see how the different guys all fit into the set-up.
As a skipper of a different kind, did you learn much from your crew-mates?
I'm not sure that we learned too much from each other, but one thing I did find out was that being a skipper of a boat makes you a hell of a good sailor! I was telling the skipper just how nervous I was behind the wheel, and he was saying to me just how nervous he'd be if he had to stand up and face some of the bowling we face. I think we both chose the right career paths!
Sounds like a pleasant way to take your mind off the cricket, but there was quite a fuss when you chose to take a break in the middle of the VB Series last week
Yeah, there was a bit of an issue about me having time off, but I've been in Melbourne since Tuesday, I've trained really well in the last couple of days and I feel really good. Looking at the games over the last week, a similar break certainly helped freshen Gilly [Adam Gilchrist] right up, and hopefully that little break will have the same effect on me. The body feels great at the moment, and to get away from cricket in mid-season has been a good mental freshener as well. Let's hope the results come as well.
You were in stunning form before your week off. How do you keep yourself in the groove when you hit such a rich seam?
You just let things flow, really. You take a look at what you've done leading up to that sort of form, and make sure you're doing the same things each time. Even if I'm struggling, I'm not the sort of guy who feels he has to go to the nets and hit a thousand balls a day, I just try to stay as mentally fresh as I can. If you're preparing yourself as well as you can and giving yourself the best chance, then you know the results will come eventually. I take the same philosophy either way.
Players talk of being "in the zone" when they hit a purple patch like that. Which was the most fluent innings you can recall?
I'd probably say my second innings down at Sydney last month. It was my 100th Test match, and I was probably as in the zone as I ever have been. I got a hundred in each innings, including 143 from 160-odd balls in the second dig, and it was in a run-chase as well. I never felt as though I was going on at all quickly, or that much was going on around me, but all of a sudden we'd chased down 290 to win. It's really strange when you get into that sort of zone as a batter - you don't hear anything much of the crowd, and nothing really seems to sink in properly.
The manner in which Australia have bounced back from the Ashes has been pretty impressive. In hindsight, do you think the defeat was actually a good thing in the long-term?
I don't think it's a good thing we lost the Ashes, no. But since we've been back, we've regrouped really well. We've done everything that's been asked of us in almost every game we've played. The Super Series games against the Rest of the World was a fantastic effort by us to win as well as we did, and add to that a Test series win against West Indies and a win over South Africa - it's been a good summer for us. Last year, 2005, was a fairly bizarre year for the team. I think we played 15 Tests and lost just two - but they happened to be the two crucial games of the Ashes. The good thing about it, I guess, is that it's only 10 months until it's all on again, and I know that this time around we'll be really well prepared and looking forward to the challenge.
Some people have suggested the Ashes were lost because the Australians weren't aggressive enough. Do you think it's fair that you're now attracting criticism for reverting to a hard-nosed approach?
I don't think it's that at all. I don't think we've changed the way we've played, because we always play in a really aggressive manner. There have been a few things that have happened, specifically players talking back to umpires, which probably hasn't been acceptable and those players have been reported. In the meantime, we have to make sure we play in the right spirit, but still play as hard as we possibly can. That's the way that Australian teams have always known how to play and it's been really successful in the past. We need to draw a line in the sand, and make sure we stay on our side of the line.
Even if I'm struggling, I'm not the sort of guy who feels he has to go to the nets and hit a thousand balls a day. I just try to stay as mentally fresh as I can
This summer, there's been a lot of antagonism with Graeme Smith - what's he really like?
Graeme Smith's not a bad bloke. He obviously came out and made some big statements at the start of the summer, most of which to date have backfired on him a bit. He hasn't had a great time with the bat so far, and the Australian team have played well against him and his team. So we've just got to make sure we keep him under that same pressure. It's funny that, as the summer's gone on, he's quietened down a lot. He knows he's under pressure and it's pretty important for us to keep him like that.
Matthew Hayden said recently he expected to see "Skippy hanging from a tree" when Australia tour South Africa later this month. You must be bracing yourself for a tough tour?
Oh yeah, it'll be a tough tour, no question. Most overseas tours are hard, and I don't think this one will be any different. But South Africa's a great place to play cricket, and we're looking forward to going over there. We've got a great record against South Africa both home and away, so we'll go over pretty confident we can keep playing well. If we do, we should see similar results to what we saw in Australia.
As Australian captain, how do you react to the reports that the South Africans have been subjected to racist abuse during this tour?
Well, it's obviously happened, because the incidents have been reported a couple of times by the South African players, and it's totally unacceptable. I've spoken a lot about it this week, but the bottom line is there's no place in any cricket venue for any racism. That goes for players and spectators alike. We just don't want those people at the cricket - they are not welcome. That's the way I look at it. As far as myself and the rest of Cricket Australia are concerned, we need absolute zero tolerance. I just hope we can stamp it out quickly and get on with playing the game
As we've seen at football grounds in England, however, it's not an easy problem to deal with. What solutions would you advocate?
I'm sure they'll be looking at different ways - such as throwing them straight out of the grounds, and running checks on them so that they are banned from all stadiums for life. There are all sorts of things we can do - but we just have to make sure we get them away from the cricket, as simple as that. Remember, it's a very, very small number of people involved. We've had nearly a million people at the cricket this summer, and it's only been a couple of idiots who've wanted to make these sorts of remarks. We need to get them out of the ground, and make sure they're not allowed back in.
Another big factor in your recent success has been Brett Lee - what's caused him to click up a gear?
I think he's just got more confidence now. He's taken a few wickets and he's really in control of his game at the moment which is great to see. I think he bowled pretty well right through the Ashes tour without taking many wickets, but his last 12 months have been fantastic. He's really turned around his Test career, and his one-day career has gone from strength to strength. He's been a great asset, and we have to make sure he's 100% fit, when the Ashes come around.
England struggled against Shoaib Akhtar on the recent Pakistan tour. What difference does a bowler of sheer pace make to a side?
It makes a huge difference. All teams would want a bloke like that in their side, but it's pretty rare that you come across guys who can bowl at that sort of pace. Brett in the Ashes probably had a slightly different role, because Glenn [McGrath] was out for a couple of Tests. He was asked to bowl a few more overs than he might otherwise have expected, and so he lost a bit of the impact you get from bowling in shorter spells. But it's nice to have these guys around, that's for sure.
In some people's eyes, you'll always be the Australian captain who lost the Ashes. Does that increase your desire to win them back this year?
Sure, I want to be captain for a few more years yet, and at the end of my career I want to put my hand up and say that I was an Ashes-winning captain. It would be nice to do that, but at the end of the day, if that doesn't happen but I still know I've done everything in my power to give the guys and myself a chance, then there's nothing more I can do about it. I can't just push a button and make the guys go out there and play good cricket, it's not that easy. Obviously we're extremely keen to play well in the next Ashes series, and if we play a better brand of cricket than last time, I'm sure it'll be a different result.
How's your new crop of fast bowlers shaping up?
Well, Brett Dorey's played a couple of one-day games, Stuart Clark's done well for us, Nathan Bracken's done a terrific job, there's Shaun Tait as well ... we've got enough really good quality players coming through in both batting and bowling fronts. But don't forget the old boys are still in the reckoning for a little bit longer yet. McGrath and Warne are still bowling really well and I'm sure they'll be good for another series yet. But if things don't go well for them, we know we've got adequate replacements in the pipeline.
And judging by Mike Hussey's first few Tests, your batting is pretty well covered
Huss has been awesome in both forms of the game. His one-day cricket as we all knew is fantastic, but since he's been in the Test side he's been amazing as well. He's had a great 12 months. There've been one or two changes since the Ashes - Martyn's missing from the batting line-up, Kasper and Dizzy from the bowling group, but the guys who've come in have really stepped up and the change has been fairly unnoticeable.
If you could re-play the events of 2005, would you do anything differently?
I don't think so, no. Obviously I'd have liked to change a couple of results, or just add a couple of runs to our total at Edgbaston! But otherwise there's not too much I'd have done differently. It was a pretty good year for us. We played 15 Test matches and lost two, so it wasn't all bad.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo. For more information about TEAM ABN AMRO's progress in the Volvo Ocean Race 2005-06 visit www.abnamro.com/team.