Last man standing
Three days before the start of the Test series in South Africa the cream of Australian cricket are in the bar of their Johannesburg hotel; a dozen or so young men in jeans and designer t-shirts, most of them as unrecognisable as the France Under-19 rugby team also touring South Africa in late February. A few yards away at a quiet table their captain, one of the game's greatest batsmen and an instantly recognisable face, is talking like the boss of an ailing business: re-evaluation, renewal and opportunity. "We're going through what any other international team, whatever the sport, goes through," he says in a matter-of-fact manner that does not begin to do justice to the magnitude of the upheavals in Australian cricket over the past two years. Welcome to earth, Ricky.
"Matty … Gilly … McGrath … Warne … Langer." Ricky Ponting rattles off the names. He might as well have been saying "John, Paul, George and Ringo", such is the stellar familiarity of these all-time greats. Australia's line-up for the Sydney Ashes Test in January 2007 was: Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Ponting, Michael Hussey, Michael Clarke, Andrew Symonds, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Glenn McGrath. Test caps: 787. Results since October 2005: P17, W16, D1, L0.
Their side that faced South Africa in Johannesburg in February read: Phillip Hughes, Simon Katich, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke, Marcus North, Brad Haddin, Andrew McDonald, Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle, Ben Hilfenhaus. Test caps: 287. Results since start of 2008 up to the start of that Test: P15, W6, D4, L5.
On top of the retirements Ponting had to make do in South Africa without Lee and Clark (both injured) and Symonds (suspended by Cricket Australia). Ponting puts a brave face on this landslide of talent, but he must have had to change the way he captains the side. "You absolutely do. Different scenarios come up in a game where once upon a time you'd turn to a guy to get a job done. Now that experience, and in some cases expertise, isn't there." He is being very diplomatic, but one senses that Anglo-Saxon words of one syllable might have cropped up in his innermost thoughts - or, in the case of the overheard expletive during the recent one-dayer against New Zealand, his outermost thoughts.
Ponting became a father last year, but he is involved in parenting of a different kind with this Australian team. He must have used the expression "young guys" a dozen times during the course of the interview. It is a bit like Nasser Hussain when Andrew Strauss came on to the scene. He used to bang on about "young lads like Strauss", who happened to be 27 at the time.
Not many of Ponting's "young guys" are actually that young, and at 36, the Victorian legspinner Bryce McGain is older than the captain, who is 34. But in terms of international experience many are novices and it is that immense challenge that Ponting faces.
Allan Border faced it in the 1980s, but he had not enjoyed the all-conquering highs of Ponting and his peers. Border came in when Australia were almost at rock bottom. The only way was up. Ponting thought his side was through the worst of it six months ago, but "we've had another couple of retirements and key blokes on the sidelines which puts us right back in that transition phase".
The admission by Ponting that Australia were in transition and not simply suffering a blip (as Ashes 2005 was widely referred to) seemed a big public statement. "I was just stating the facts," he says with a 'what was I supposed to say' smile.
The state of the team has necessitated a total rethink in strategy and tactics. "We have to find ways and means of getting over those hurdles," Ponting says. "I'm still learning a fair bit about some of these guys and what they can and can't cope with. There are things that have happened to me in the last three months that haven't happened to me in my whole international career. You have to sit back, evaluate and re-evaluate where you are and where the team's at and make yourself a better person and a better player."
He explains that the team now is micro-managed in a way that would have been unthinkable three years ago. "I made it clear halfway through last [Australian] summer to the senior players and coaches that we have to be spot on with everything we do and that we can't afford to have any confusion. This means that pretty much every week I am sitting down with the coaches to plan everything that is done and said. It's time-consuming but it has to be done, otherwise you get all sorts of confused messages."
In the March issue of TWC, Mickey Arthur, the South Africa coach, revealed a similar approach but implied it was standard 21st-century practice. The implication, refuted by Ponting of course, was that this attention to detail was not standard practice in what might be termed the Warne-McGrath era. In reality there would have been more devolved responsibility because there could be: great players who knew how to prepare and how to perform.
Ponting's instincts are that players should learn for themselves, and he portrays his own cricket education as a triumph of self-teaching. "I've always been good at picking up things other people do. That's how I learnt about the game. I've never had my own batting coach." One senses that there has been a major cultural shift, a reality check that has been a monumental eye-opener for the captain.
An official with the South African squad had noticed a change in Ponting's demeanour since their series in Australia in December and January: that he had previously been aloof but had now "lightened up". That observation tallies with the sense that Ponting is gradually coming to terms with the current state of affairs. As in other areas of society the boom years are over. Recession has kicked in.
But mention of England and their bizarre month or so of mishaps brings a smile. "Yeah, there's been a bit happening," he laughs. "Everywhere they go something seems to go wrong." But he resists absolutely the temptation for big statements on the Ashes. The old bravado and the McGrath-style 5-0 predictions have gone, relics of a bygone age.
"We'll see what happens," Ponting says. Is he still optimistic about the Ashes? "Absolutely. The feeling around the whole of Australia has just been doom and gloom but we did some things really well [against South Africa at home]. The gap between our best cricket and worst was too vast. We're not that far off." He says he was encouraged, too, by the performances in India late last year: "We had chances to win a couple of Tests." But these are slim pickings. They lost two major series 2-0 and 2-1, the one victory coming in a dead rubber.
It is like listening to an England captain of the 1990s scrambling in the rubble in search of a jewel. The difference is that Australia's fall, rapid and remarkable though it has been, left them still battling to retain their No.1 status when they began their series against South Africa in late February. All things are relative.
A Mike Gatting persona
Ponting arrives for the interview unsmiling and tense, though he relaxes quickly as we get chatting. In one of his annually published diaries he has written that he considers himself shy and envies Adam Gilchrist's ability to speak freely in all company. He is small but solid, compact and combative. His upper body looks strong, from thick wrists through swarthy arms to biceps emerging discreetly from his grey collared t-shirt as he leans cross-armed on the small table. His round face, taut and grim at first, creases quickly and often into a cheeky, twinkle-eyed grin. One can picture him easily as a sport-obsessed boy scrapping for recognition in Mowbray, the working-class suburb of Launceston, Tasmania's second city. He has a steely, driven, self-starting look about him. It is not a huge leap of imagination to picture him getting into those infamous scraps a decade or so ago in India and outside the Bourbon and Beefsteak nightclub in Sydney's notorious King's Cross district, incidents that resulted in a very public carpeting by the Australian board.
There is something of Mike Gatting about him in persona: both are sport-mad (Ponting, famously nicknamed Punter, owns greyhounds and loves horse-racing, golf and Aussie Rules); both have outrageous batting talent (though Gatting's remained less fulfilled at the highest level); both appear uncomplicated, governed by instinct more than intellect; both have been captains of mixed success, relative to expectations, and been troubled by their reactions to politically sensitive incidents (Shakoor Rana for Gatting, "Monkeygate" for Ponting).
Mark Ray, the cricket writer and former captain of Tasmania, remembers being told by Neville Oliver, the late Tasmanian cricket broadcaster, during the 1980s of a "kid in Launceston who was going to be better than Boonie". David Boon, also from Launceston and now an Australian selector, was the benchmark for the young Ponting, though another batsman whose name began with "B" is a more legitimate comparison. Or is he? "That's our game, innit?" Ponting says with a shrug. "Nobody's comparable to him in our game. It was like he was playing a different game. It's hard to believe anybody's played better than Tendulkar or Lara, but there's someone out there who was twice as good." Ponting goes on to recount the "unbelievable experience" as a 15-year-old at the Australian academy of meeting Don Bradman at the Adelaide Oval in the early 1990s. Not once does he refer to Bradman by name.
Boon was the benchmark but Kim Hughes was the idol. The young Ponting loved his flamboyance, "the way he took on the Windies, hooking and pulling". It figures. Ponting is the most classically complete batsman in the world. He obviously loves batting and he loves studying batsmanship. He paints word-perfect batting portraits of the Waugh twins, as if these analyses have been stored deep within his subconscious for years. "I've always studied older players. Why was Steve Waugh so powerful off the back foot through the covers? Why was Mark so good at flicking the ball through midwicket? Why was neither that good against the short ball? I analyse it and pick it to pieces." But the suggestion that style matters is shouted down. "Not at all. It's not how, it's how many. That's what I tell all our youngsters."
Does he have what it takes?
For those "youngsters", the burden of succession, growing up in the shadow of great deeds must be unbearable. "That's been the hard thing for our spinners, especially coming into the side over the last 12 months. They're compared to Warnie straightaway. It's not fair on them and it's important that I and the other senior players don't look at them that way." Up to the start of the Test series in South Africa Australia had used six specialist spinners in Tests since Shane Warne's retirement two years ago. Between them they took 48 wickets at 52.
It is arguably Ponting's misfortune to be in charge as a remarkable period of dominance comes to an end. He has convinced himself otherwise. "This is a pretty exciting time in my career. There's a great opportunity for this group of guys to forge their own identity." Managing the public's expectations is impossible. "Publicly you want to back your team-mates and you want them to hear some of the positive things you're saying about them. But by doing that their expectations become a bit higher. It's a tough one to get right."
He claims not to have thought about packing it in, or indeed when he might end his career. There have been plenty of pundits over the past year who have thought differently, most notably Peter Roebuck who called for Ponting's head after the Harbhajan Singh-Symonds "monkey" row in January last year in a sensational front-page article for the Sydney Morning Herald. It was a reaction that Ponting describes as "well and truly over the top", taking solace in what he believes to be a supportive public.
There are hardly queues of people to praise Ponting's captaincy. He was made to look ponderous by Michael Vaughan in the 2005 Ashes. Asked if he is becoming a better captain, he says: "You have to think that. You learn things about your team-mates and yourself every day that make you a better captain. There are more challenges now than a couple of years ago but I certainly believe I'm becoming a better captain and a better leader of a younger group of players."
One can surmise that for the first four years of Ponting's captaincy leadership came as much from within the team as from the top. Now things have changed so drastically that the requirements have also changed. This year will tell us whether Ponting has what it takes. It's an opportunity for these guys to forge their own identity.