And then there was Ponting
Everybody had left Windsor Park. Rain-affected and uneven practice wickets sent all members of the Australian team scurrying back to their ocean-view hotel two days out from the third Test. All, that is, except one. About half an hour after the rest departed, once the Dominica sun had shone a little on the drying nets, Ricky Ponting strode out from the dressing room for a series of throw-downs and technical tweaks in the company of the assistant coach Justin Langer.
Of all the players on tour for Australia, Ponting would appear the least in need of another batting session. He has far and away the least to prove, had looked in good touch in the second innings in Trinidad on a testy pitch, and has the benefit of a deep and precise memory to guide him through the ways and means of batting on just about any surface international cricket can present. But still he worked, grooving his drives, forward and back defensives and pull shots, aware that this will be his last assignment for Australia for at least the next six months. South Africa arrive down under in November.
Half a year without international cricket is a long stretch for any player in 2012, let alone a 37-year-old Ponting, who has lived almost half his life playing for his country, and winning for it far more often than not. Amid all the drives, pushes and pulls, most compellingly well struck despite a practice pitch unsafe to be presented to an international bowler, Ponting had time to ponder whether this match might just be his last. Dominica would be an odd place for it all to end, but perhaps fitting, being one of the few international venues in which Ponting has not taken guard. No-one has travelled further in pursuit of team success and batting excellence over the past two decades than Ponting, and it remains to be seen what six months without those travels and challenges will do to his sense of hunger.
For now though, Ponting is adamant that his desire will be undimmed by the break. He is equally insistent that he will spend his time wisely, not lapsing into winter reverie now it may be spent in Sydney, Melbourne and Hobart rather than London, Johannesburg or Colombo. "My love for the game and passion and desire to play and be successful hasn't changed," Ponting said. "Even when things were really tough a few months ago, all I wanted to do was try to give myself the best chance to be able to play well again.
"I felt I got there through the summer and I feel like I'm batting really well at the moment. So I don't think a bit of time at home will override that. I've still got a few things I want to achieve and a few games of cricket I want to be a part of and win for Australia. As long as I feel I can play a role winning games of cricket for Australia I'll continue to do it. I'm enjoying it as much as ever and probably working harder than ever on my game."
To that end, Tasmania stands to see far more of Ponting in the spring than at almost any time since he began playing for and touring with Australia in 1995. Cricket Australia's desire to front-end the Sheffield Shield will mean a schedule rolling into action as early as September, and Ponting has set down a plan to spend extra time in Hobart. "I've known for a while that was going to be the case, to have a relatively long break like I've got coming up for a while and for 20 years it's been pretty unusual for me to get a break of that length," he said. "I'll make sure I use my time wisely and make sure I have a good break at the start of it.
"But I'm planning on spending a bit more time in Tassie this year and doing a lot more work with the Tassie boys down there leading into the start of the Sheffield Shield season which I think is going to be a fair bit earlier again this year by the sounds of things. I'm excited about this week but also looking forward to a bit of a break and a chance to really get my body and mind in great shape for the start of next year."
Though not at quite the same pitch of intensity that followed him through South Africa last year, when a technical hitch had him in knots against straight deliveries and forced a near total reboot of his methods, Ponting has been followed by plenty of speculation in the Caribbean. It has been fuelled by his summary dismissal from the ODI team during the home summer, and compounded by a series of slim scores in the Tests. The fact that Ponting's dismissals were run-out, bowled by a shooter, caught behind off a snorter and out hooking in the chase for quick runs has been noted, but more indifferent returns in Dominica will add to the ordinance being fired by those who think Australian cricket should move on.
"I'm a bit oblivious to how much has been spoken about me as well because I haven't been reading too much," Ponting said. "But to be totally honest I feel like I'm in as good a shape as ever. The start of my innings in the second innings last week was as good as I've played in a while. Even the way I started the other few innings early in the tour everything was feeling really good just carrying on from the end of the Shield season.
"Although the numbers and the runs didn't come in the first few innings it was nice to get a few last week. Disappointing not to have been 70 or 80 not out when we declared the other day, but it was that sort of wicket where once you got in it was hard to maintain high scoring rates and that's what we needed to do when I got out, we needed to start lifting the scoring rate a bit and just happened to get out when I did. I feel terrific, and have done right through the tour."
Terrific as he may have felt, Ponting still thought it necessary to hone his batting at a time when every other member of the touring party had retreated to the oceanfront. His tendency to train harder and longer than anyone else is a point of pride as well as fastidiousness, and has been of as much value to the rest of Australia's squad as it has been to Ponting himself. Even if they were not still at the ground, every player back at the hotel knew a familiar face was absent, training. Munching on some afternoon sustenance, every player also had the chance to ponder whether they should still have been there too. They are guaranteed to ponder it less when Ponting is finally absent, retired.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here