Ponting and Tendulkar fight for their utility
Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun. Now they are asking you what else is left to achieve in ODI cricket. Now a hush doesn't fall when Sachin Tedulkar gets out. Now Ricky Ponting's coach says performance is a cricketer's currency, and he should know that.
Two months ago, Ponting turned 37; in two months, Tendulkar will be 39. Today Ponting kept finding fielders with accuracy that would have won him some in a shooting range. For the first time in his career Ponting has had a string of five single-figure scores in ODIs: 2, 1, 6, 2 and 7. For the first time on this tour - a non-productive one - Tendulkar looked out of sorts today, falling for 3, taking his tally in 12 international innings on the tour to 355, an average of 29.58.
Tendulkar and Ponting in ODIs: 31,883 runs, four World Cups and 78 centuries between them. Tendulkar has a double-century too. What is left to achieve, people ask, and is that worth going through what they have been going through? For the players, though, that is not a question at all. There are achievements to be achieved, yes, but there is more to the game of cricket. They love it, they want to do well, and perhaps they don't know what after cricket.
On Saturday the Australian team flew in from Sydney to Brisbane, one of them attended the obligatory press conference, and then they rested to recover for the second game in three days, on Sunday. Ponting, though, slipped out of the hotel, and hit the nets at the Gabba. He wants to play, he is doing all he can to retain his place, and he is not asking himself what is left to achieve.
"If that time ever comes for me, when I start questioning if I want to play the game or not, the time has already passed you," Ponting said. "You should have given up the game. People asked me similar questions, I guess, through the Tests as well, before the Indian series. If I still thought I could do it, if I still thought I had the passion to keep playing. Definitely yes."
Surely Tests are different than ODIs? Surely ODIs don't provide the same sort of challenge, surely there is only so much you can achieve in ODIs? Not for Ponting. "I can't see how it can be any different at all," Ponting said. "It's my passion for the game, it's not my passion for one form of the game. It's my passion for representing my country, it's my passion for representing Australia."
Ponting then went on to announce he was available for Australia's next ODI, to be played in his hometown Hobart. He also announced he wanted to play ODIs beyond this summer, in the West Indies.
"I wouldn't have run to the nets yesterday for an hour-and-a-half if I didn't have that determination to try and make myself better and improve everyday," he said. "That's always been the way I have gone about my cricket. There's never a training session that goes by where I leave the training track without being a hundred per cent happy with what I want from the training day. That's the way I have always been about my cricket. That's the way I'll finish."
It is easy to be cynical and dismiss this as PR talk. Another way of looking at it can be that Ponting doesn't want to go anywhere. He has been the first Australian in a long time to continue playing even after losing his captaincy. An even rarer case would be how a former captain has taken over the side with the current captain unavailable because of injury. The message is clear: I am not going anywhere, don't ask me to retire, if you feel I should be dropped, go ahead. That's how it should be, too.
Tendulkar's case is slightly different. He has been picking and choosing the ODIs he wants to play. There is a feeling, keeping that in mind, that he might have missed a golden opportunity of calling time on his ODI career when India won the World Cup last April. Then again, leaving on a high is a highly idyllic notion. Today, though, was the first time on this tour he looked off right from the start. He even pre-mediated his movement away to make room against a short delivery.
Again, the real question is, is Tendulkar hurting the team balance? On the surface, he is not, because he still looks likelier to perform than some of the youngsters. MS Dhoni, though, feels he cannot accommodate all three of Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir because of their relative slowness in the field. He says an extra slow man in the field adds up, and the cumulative difference the slowness costs is about 20 runs. In that scenario, Tendulkar is fighting, like any other player, to keep his place in the side. That's how it should be, too.
Ponting and Tendulkar have taken up the challenge to prove their utility in the side in their own different ways. These are two men who love the game, who have been through almost everything in their ODI careers, and still love it enough to fight for it, something they are not accustomed to. It will be fascinating to watch how they come out of the rest of the triangular.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo