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