September 29, 2008

Punter's frontier

For Ponting the India tour is more than a matter of setting his dismal record in the country straight

Ponting has in recent times let slip an elder statesman's anxiety about the future of international cricket © AFP

Preparing for his delivery of the Bradman Oration at last month's celebrations of the Don's centenary, Ricky Ponting carefully set out a prepared speech that at normal pace would comfortably fill half an hour. The hushed auditorium and harsh lighting of the evening got the better of him: he galloped through his words in less than 18 minutes. It happens, to be fair, to the best public speakers. Yet the story is also, as it were, Punteresque: when in doubt, or under pressure, Australia's captain goes hard, even headlong, about his business.

Doubt and pressure now accompany Ponting to India. Of course, not even the most imposing Test records are without their soft spots. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid don't average 40 in South Africa; Matthew Hayden averages less than 35 in England; Shane Warne paid more than 43 runs for each of his Test wickets in India. But Ponting's five-day performances in cricket's modern centre aren't just middlingly poor. An average of 12.28 from 14 innings implies that about the only thing he has been getting right is turning up on the required days.

Theories, inevitably, have been advanced. Ian Chappell says Ponting is inclined to bat as he speaks - there is too much hurry too soon. It is arguable the conditions restrict him. The lower Indian bounce deprives Ponting of opportunities to essay his pet pull shot; nor has he ever been a confident player of the sweep. Whatever the case, he still has much to prove. It was Steve Waugh who christened India the Australian team's "final frontier"; injury deprived Ponting of a share in Australia setting that to rights four years ago, and he arrives looking for a vital validation. How will he respond?

The likely answer is: by sticking to what he knows. Ponting has the classically Australian characteristic of not being a fiddler or a faffer with the basics of his technique or approach. He ascribes his failure in India seven years ago to tampering with the tried and true after a failure or two. Under his captaincy, too, Australia have played a brand of percentage cricket, convinced that quality will out as long as the game plan is observed. The scheme hasn't met with uniform success: Australia's predictability cost them in the Ashes of 2005. But with Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Ponting himself, quality has proven a wise investment. The team has continued setting standards worldwide.

Even without that mighty trio, Ponting will be priming Australia to assert themselves, to radiate the prickly, up-and-at-'em aura that he doesn't trouble to euphemise as "mental disintegration". Although it is a commonplace that Australia is the world's most aggressive team, it is actually more accurate to describe them as the world's most consistently and uniformly aggressive team. That is, where a number of teams exhibit aggression in spasms and phases, and certain individuals from other countries are inclined to throw regular weight around, Australians are better at maintaining a lounging, low-level hostility at all times. Indeed, one of the bones Ponting has picked with India is that their players appear to vary in their willingness to contest. He complained, for instance, when the hosts, chockfull of cheek in the first two games of last year's one-day series, suddenly took umbrage in the third: "If the Indians can play the sort of cricket they did play for the first couple of games and then completely turn around and go the other way in the other games, it showed us how fake, if you like, the first part of the series was as far as they're concerned." One of the reasons Bhajjigate festered on in January, I suspect, was a residual annoyance about what Australians see as an Indian tendency to periodically redefine the acceptable level of on-field belligerence. Thus Ponting's hankering to obtain an ICC determination of what was beyond the pale - not a wise move, really, considering the ICC needs a committee to determine the day of the week.

How closely Ponting can hew to his old ways, however, will not depend entirely on his own volition. The cricket world is waiting to see whether Australia can remain its reserve currency, as it were, without the watermark of former greats. The absence of Andrew Symonds, furthermore, removes a huge, brooding stumbling block, sometimes sullen but always intimidating, in both Australia's middle order and its fielding formations: his physical presence may be missed in India almost as much as his skills.

Top Curve
Leading modern players and the countries they average least in
  • Dravid in South Africa: 504 runs (8 Tests, 16 inns)
    at 33.60
  • Lara in India: 198 runs (3 Tests, 6 inns) at 33
  • Inzamam in Australia: 494 runs (8 Tests, 16 inns)
    at 30.87
  • Kallis in England: 586 runs (12 Tests, 20 inns) at 29.30
  • Hayden in New Zealand: 197 runs (4 Tests, 7 inns) at 28.14
  • Jayawardene in New Zealand: 194 runs (4 Tests, 7 inns) at 27.21
  • Sehwag in South Africa: 238 runs (5 Tests, 9 inns)
    at 26.44
  • Tendulkar in South Africa: 835 runs (12 Tests, 22 inns) at 39.76
  • Minimum of five innings
Ponting in India
  • 1996-97: 1 Test, 27 runs at 13.50
    1997-98: 3 Tests, 105 runs at 21
    2000-01: 3 Tests, 17 runs at 3.40
    2004-05: 1 Test, 23 runs at 11.50
Bottom Curve

Just returned from surgery on his right wrist, Ponting himself is a cricketer increasingly conscious of the limits of his own body; thirty-four in December and newly a father, he can glimpse life beyond the game. He has never really had Waugh's presence as a captain: where Waugh exuded a lurking, predatory toughness, Ponting tends merely to look surly. But while never as demonstratively patriotic as his predecessor, Ponting has let slip more often in recent times an elder statesman's anxiety about international cricket. In his Bradman Oration, he dwelt on the old-fashioned continuities of his upbringing - how his junior years were as concerned with community as cricket.

For me they are the things, like the smell of Aeroguard, which is something that sticks in my mind about junior cricket. The smell of cut grass is something even to this day, I can still remember [...] I remember jumping on my BMX at the age of seven or eight years old and riding all over Launceston to find where my local A-grade side were playing. I was always the first one there and inevitably the last one to leave. I would sit [...] in the corner of the change rooms, listening to whatever the club legends of the time had to say about the game and to this moment today, I still feel that's where I learned most about the game of cricket.

There was more, much more, in this vein. And although reporting of the Oration emphasised Ponting's (fairly anodyne) opinions about Twenty20, the context of those views seemed much more significant. For all his rapid-fire delivery, Ponting was, unbidden, taking the side of tradition in the pending debates about the game's future. Not even Waugh at his most sentimental dwelt so long on cricket as a local activity, and even as a rite of adult passage. Ponting recalled his youthful chagrin, for example, when the local park of his childhood insisted that cricket games be played with tennis balls: "For me that wasn't what cricket was all about. Cricket was about a cricket ball, pads and gloves, playing in the park, playing against kids who were a lot bigger, a lot stronger, and for me that's when my journey really started." Not a view much heard in these days of plastic balls, plastic stumps and inclusive modified games.

In coming to India, then, Ponting is not simply on a mission to improve his own record; he will be hoping, by a memorable Border-Gavaskar Trophy, to shape the game's future in the country destined to determine it. "I personally look forward to emulating Sir Donald and leaving the game in better shape for having been apart of it," he concluded his speech last month. And granted that the circumstances probably called for high-sounding sentiments, and that pressure then made them fast-sounding, Ponting deserves in this instance to be taken at his word.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • TOM on October 1, 2008, 3:04 GMT

    Here's the real thing about Ponting's record - he has a considerably better batting average than any Indian batsman. The fact is that he built this average from a much lower base early on and this is a tribute not a detraction from his record compared with Sachin. A poor average against India is a gap in the CV but the overall record makes him the most accomplished Australian batsman since Bradman and I recognise Greg Chappell record in saying that.

  • Ravi Kumar on September 30, 2008, 4:02 GMT

    As Haigh's articles go, this one is actually somewhat unexpectedly balanced.

    However, Haigh tends to play up the aggro from the Indian team, while totally and probably deliberately missing the fact that among the pillars of Indian cricket in recent times i.e. Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Kumble, Ganguly and even Sehwag, most have by and large played their cricket with a degree of dignity that few Australian cricketers - or even those from other parts of the world - can emulate. They have done this in the face of not just on-field aggro from the likes of Ponting and his lot, but also despite having to play with pressure that far exceeds the kind that the Australian team admitted they were unable to handle after the Sydney test. Of these cricketers, Ganguly has been the most overtly aggressive, and that was when he was captain. Ponting fell into the same trap in the test series when he labelled the team for the aggression a few players showed. Haigh does no better.

  • Venkattraman on September 30, 2008, 3:44 GMT

    I think Indian pitches have changed a lot in the recent past. If Neil Mckenzie can be so difficult to get out, then I don't see any reason for Ponting not scoring runs. India's so called home advantage does not exist anymore and even with S.Rajesh's Numbers Game showing that recently, it is surprising to see Cricinfo carry articles that mention the "advantage". There is no real home advantage and I just hope they make sporting tracks that give a result.

  • Geoffrey on September 30, 2008, 3:12 GMT

    Rooboy.. there is nothing irrational about my dislike for RT Ponting. When you consider that Warney or Gilchrist were the alternatives, he was the worse choice. Sure anyone can captain a great side but he has still managed the only Ashes series loss in 20 years, not to mention back to back humiliations in the home one day triangular tournaments (I heard Keith Stackpole on ABC say that his field placing would have disgraced an under 11 captain).

    I suppose it is traditional to "adore" the incumbant Australian captain, but if last years Sydney test is anything to go by, the Australian public started to recognise that as a captain he isn't fit to lick the boots of Waugh, Taylor & Border that went before him. Previously spoilt for good players and now actually having to captain a young side overseas, we'll just see how good he is. I am picking India 2-1.

  • Nathan on September 30, 2008, 1:00 GMT

    Ponting's average in india would be somewhat higher if we only count the times he has truly been dismissed, given that several of his dismissals in the 2001 series were only due to disgraceful umpiring, and had nothing to do with being beaten by a bowler. I believe he will be determined to flourish this series, he just needs to be given a fair go from the umpires. Thanks for the laugh Hammond, the ignorance of your comments is hilarious. This woeful captain, responsible for such inept cricket, has won 2 World Cups and has not ever lost a World Cup game as captain, not to mention the almost unprecedented 5-0 Ashes victory, a 3-0 victory over Sri Lanka in his first series as captain etc etc. Sure, he led some great players but you can't do much more than win. Hammond, you need to get over whatever grudge you have against Ponting and get yourself a clue, because your irrational dislike of Ponting is causing you to make ridiculous statements!

  • Amit on September 29, 2008, 18:29 GMT

    Another astute piece by Gideon Haigh, but I almost stopped reading it after the wonderful line "Thus Ponting's hankering to obtain an ICC determination of what was beyond the pale - not a wise move, really, considering the ICC needs a committee to determine the day of the week," as I was laughing too much.

  • Aditya on September 29, 2008, 11:23 GMT

    Ricky Ponting, if I may be pardoned, is a very good player, but I cannot see an outstanding facet to his batting. He is mentally tough, but overdoes the mental toughness part. He has to be with his back against the wall, at all times against Harbhajan Singh, even when he is batting well. The 'Back against the wall' mentality, is his motivation playing against India. I do not feel that he plays like this against any other team.

  • chinmay on September 29, 2008, 9:12 GMT

    I would love to see Ponting do well in the upcoming series. I think its a mental thing for him and he just needs to be a little cautious early on in his innings and then he is capable of dominating Harbhajan and Kumble.As for the series,when the Aussies won the last series in India,they played with 4 seamers and one spinner and it worked for them.Everyone keeps talking about how inexperienced their spin attack is,but Aussie seamers are going to play a significant part this time and the series outcome will depend a lot on that.

  • Aditya on September 29, 2008, 5:06 GMT

    Here's the thing about Ponting's statement about India's aggression being "fake": India's aggression on the field is usually in response to something, and never orchestrated by themselves. In that one-day series last year, Symonds started it after sledging the Indians for "carrying on" with the Twenty20 celebrations. We're never that good at maintaining aggression anyway, it's only when someone winds us up. So in the third game I guess the provocation from Australia died down. Further, Ponting is a great player, no doubt. But Ponting can never be in the class of Tendulkar or Lara, firstly because he has never had to consistently face bowlers of the class of Wasim Akram, or Waqar Younis, or Allan Donald in the prime of his career. Secondly, his average has only recently gone up close to 60...he hasn't maintained it yet for a decade or so as Sachin has. So if he fails in India it won't really be a big travesty, maybe he just isn't suited to Indian conditions. And that's fair enough.

  • sridhar on September 29, 2008, 4:31 GMT

    Yes this will most certainly be Ponting"s last tour here as a test batsman, for he may still keep coming back for the IPL lollies and in more ways than ever this is the "final frontier" for him if not for the new look Australian side. He is getting on in years , though he still retains shades of his impetuosity in his behaviour on the field at least. But there is no denying the fact that he is one of the modern greats, if not one of the greatest of all time. If we are to speak of Ponting in that vein then this tour is perhaps more important for him than any other tour. He also has a greater role to play as Australia is one of the few remaining bastions of test cricket and a strongly contested, close, intense series like the 2005 Ashes can do more for the struggling if not ailing format than all the speeches that people can deliver.

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