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Players/Officials: Ricky Ponting
Near the top right corner of Ricky Ponting's bat is painted the thick black outline of a kookaburra, which is appropriate, for one of the most devastating sentences in all cricket literature goes: "He not only butchered the bowling, he took a cruel delight in his total mastery, as a kookaburra takes a cackling joy in breaking the necks of snakes."
So said Denzil Batchelor of Don Bradman. Add a wad of chewie, a flash of furry, sun-browned arms, then some little boy's teeth peeping out the instant before that happy cackle erupts, and you have Ricky Ponting in excelsis.
That was him, the defining image of a decade ruled by batsmen: Ponting tapping, chewing, smirking, in a helmet and short sleeves, a little man fidgety with energy and always on the move, feet snapping into position, arms flying at the ball, head trusting the trueness of the bounce. Bowlers peering up from the top of their run-ups could detect no trace of softness. One confident stride towards the ball; then, hit hard. Singles, twos and threes he sprinted. On pitches that seamed or spun, before he was quite set, feet and hands thrust so firmly at the ball were sometimes difficult to retract if the ball got closer to him than he'd imagined. But Punter's luck was in. Such pitches were rare. And on flat decks, some days, he turned bowlers into ball-ferriers. Trying to unstick him was futile. "He set out to loosen the bowling, as a stonemason uses wedges to crack rock …" Bradman again, the way Ray Robinson saw him, and a neater line to describe the beginnings of a Ponting innings has yet to be invented.
Runs piled up and up, as happened to Bradman, so high that seeing past them became hard - impossible, in the end, decided the selectors of Cricinfo's Player of the Decade. In 13 countries and three kinds of cricket, Ponting gathered nearly 19,000 international runs. No batsman before him had hit 15,000 in a decade. Dotted among these were 55 hundreds, several containing not a flicker of a chance, some of them scarcely a mishit.
If few were the thrilling creations of all our childhood dreamings, well perhaps that was a little bit Bradmanesque too. Business cricketer, master tradesman, run machine, automaton; some of the labels flung upon The Don clung little less adhesively to Ponting. The pattern of many an Australian summer's day went like this: wake up, telly on, wicket falls, Ponting in, get distracted by the commentary team's spruiking of memorabilia and the wavelike lapping of the run flow, then by coffee and the lawnmower, return to the lounge room in time to see Ponting raising his bat again.
Ponting has his pull stroke - slapped hard and flat off one swivelling leg, from deliveries seemingly too full to clobber - yet it lacks the signature gorgeousness of a Laxman, Lara or Martyn, just as Bradman's cover-drive was scant match for Stan McCabe's. No Ponting innings shines sunnier in the memory than an 88 on a Gabba seamer. It was his fifth Test. Matthew Elliott, in his first, had gone for a duck; Michael Bevan, in his eighth, would soon do likewise. In three and a bit hours of freewheeling impudence, Ponting hooked four frowning West Indian fast men to apoplexy. He did this not last decade, though, but in the previous millennium.
He did it at number three in the batting order. Selectors short of sight and empty of imagination dumped him one Test later. By 1999 he'd played 30 matches for a Test average of 38. In 2002, when Wisden profiled the world's 40 finest cricketers in a booklet called The Best, Ponting was listed not in the category of "the all-time greats", nor even "the almost-greats". They filed Ponting under "the merely excellent".
Finally he was trusted once more at number three. That imp-genius 88 felt long ago. Five years had flown, and been frittered, at numbers six, five and seven.
"I didn't like waiting around" - in the dressing room, he was talking about, not the time it took team honchos to come to their senses. He disliked arriving at the crease "in different conditions with the ball older". Number three was his home as a boy. Going back there felt like the big career turning point. And there was one other thing. In the same year, 2001, that he reclaimed number three, Ricky got to know Rianna Cantor.
|That was him, the defining image of a decade ruled by batsmen: Ponting tapping, chewing, smirking, in a helmet and short sleeves, a little man fidgety with energy and always on the move, feet snapping into position, arms flying at the ball, head trusting the trueness of the bounce|
"My inspiration. My love." She was something else, too. "No matter what happens on the field, as long as I have you beside me then I know everything in the world is right."
Things happened fast - too fast, if you had the misfortune to be bowling to him. In Johannesburg in 2003, his buccaneering day out, Ponting's last 90 runs of the World Cup final came in 47 balls, one- and two-handed sixes pitter-pattering the roofs of the leg-side stands. At Old Trafford in 2005, his masterpiece of abstinence, a Test match was rescued with exquisitely placed strokes and nowt-shalt-tempt-me no-strokes. Between times, against India, came double-hundreds in a row, and inexorable.
Before long, he was frequently being hailed as one of his country's most significant captains; one of its shrewdest, less frequently. Old Test men grizzled. This fellow couldn't set decent fields, wouldn't try part-time bowlers, didn't tolerate blokes who weren't his sort of blokes, got grumpy, never learnt, grew paranoid about over-rates, delayed declarations too late and gasbagged too long between overs. Also, he kept losing the Ashes. Ponting mightn't like hearing this - and if his eighth and latest book can be believed, he obsesses painstakingly over nearly every word written about him - but his flaws made the drama all the more watchable.
At least one of them - the one about him never learning - can be crossed off the list. Against Pakistan recently, on an MCG pitch built to last a month, he declared 10 overs after lunch on day two, out-thinking everybody, and setting up victory with four hours left on the second-last day of the decade.
He has blossomed, this boy whose interests, team-mates used to protest, ran far deeper than cricket; he was fond of greyhounds, golf and Aussie Rules too. In a way, the more he has learnt, the more his original passion has been rekindled. The Ponting of today is Test cricket's greatest defender, speaking up for its verities and olde-worlde eccentricities, and bucking fashion by choosing five-day cricket over cheesburger cricket. On Test match morning at the Adelaide Oval, where some of the soft, fine curves are being massacred so that more football fans can be crammed in, an idiot local ABC commentator asked Ponting if he was looking forward to seeing the North Melbourne Kangaroos play there. Radio listeners felt the air turn thick. Ponting's irritation was palpable. Why, was the mostly unspoken inference, are bulldozers dismantling paradise? And why aren't you asking me about cricket?
Ponting loves cricket, you see. Once he's done playing, he might yet be a good person to have sitting on the world's cricket boards for the next four or so decades, a bit like another famous Australian who used to laugh in bowlers' faces.
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, published in March 2009
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