When the boot was on the other foot
As Andrew Symonds prepared to head home after being kicked out of Australia's ICC World Twenty20 squad for breaching team rules, his captain was left to face the media to explain the whys and wherefores of the situation. He could speak about Symonds' indiscretions with first-hand knowledge. A little over a decade before, it had been Ricky Ponting who was in hot water.
It is hard to believe that 10 years ago many were prepared to write Ponting off as a talent whose lack of self discipline meant he would end up on the scrap heap. Since making his international debut in 1995 as a 20-year-old, Ponting had shown signs of the player he was to become, but his behaviour threatened to put the skids under his chances of staying at the top.
In 1998 while on tour in India, he was thrown out of the Equinox disco at the Peerless Hotel in Kolkata after allegedly trying to crash a party there, ending up in a scuffle with security guards. He was fined.
Nine months later, in January 1999, Ponting had lost his place in the Test side after a dismal stretch during which he made 47 runs in three matches against England, but was still in the one-day team for the Carlton & United Series. After a day-night game, again against England, at the SCG, in which he made 6, Ponting headed into town to drown his sorrows. That in itself was not untoward, as the team had a curfew of 1.30am after day-nighters.
But Ponting went overboard and near dawn he found himself in Bourbon and Beefsteak, a 24-hour bar in the Kings Cross red-light area. Malcolm Knox, the Australian journalist, wrote in the Observer in 2006: "The details of what happened next may have remained hazy were it not for the presence of an off-duty photographer from Sydney's Sun-Herald newspaper, Julian Andrews, whose photographs of Ponting stumbling out of the Bourbon with one-and-a-half black eyes were published later that week.
"It emerged that Ponting had been punched by a bouncer," - later identified as Mark Solomona, a former Oldham rugby league professional - "following an altercation. It was said the cricketer had taken exception to a barman refusing him a drink. As he left the bar, supported by his mystery date, Ponting looked every bit our Tasmanian George Best. The most talented young batsman in Australia seemed set on self-destruction."
Ponting himself insisted that he had little recollection of what followed, other than that he was punched and woke up back at his hotel.
Four days later, the Australian Cricket Board, reacting to a disoriented Ponting's picture across the front page of the Sun-Herald, called a press conference where Ponting, sporting a black eye, faced the media alongside Malcolm Speed, at the time the ACB's chief executive.
Ponting did not beat around the bush. "I have to admit to myself that I have a problem with alcohol at times and I intend to overcome this problem. On occasions I've drunk too much and got myself into situations I don't intend to be in," he said. "It's up to me to look after myself properly and make sure I never get into those bad situations again. It's up to me to come back from this squeaky clean.
"I'm very embarrassed about this whole situation and it's certainly something I'm going to work on very hard to make sure it doesn't happen again. Hopefully, I can go on and play good cricket."
He admitted his career was "on thin ice" and that he "couldn't keep letting people down".
Speed endorsed the comments, adding that it was not that Ponting had a serious alcohol problem so much as that when he did drink he found it hard to stop and ended up in trouble.
Not everyone was convinced. "He uttered all the required bromides, apologised to his state and country, and then went to cricket practice," Knox wrote. "It was a sad and unconvincing performance from a troubled young man. We had seen this kind of flawed character before, it was said. Nothing could save him. You could take the boy out of working-class, asbestos-clad Tassie, but you couldn't take Tassie out of the boy."
But Ponting was as good as his word. Supported throughout by the board and the Australian Cricketers' Association, he took an AUS$5000 fine and a three-match ban on the chin, underwent counselling and gradually straightened himself out. By the time Steve Waugh stood down as captain in early 2002, Ponting was a fixture in the team, and few disputed he was Waugh's natural successor. It was, one paper wrote, one of sport's greatest makeovers.
Since then he has led Australia to two World Cups and continued their unprecedented period of dominance of both Test and one-day cricket. As a batsman he has done enough to be considered one of the greats. It hasn't all been plain sailing, and occasionally the old abrasiveness has emerged on the field. But look no further for an example of how a career can be turned round.
For Symonds, however, second and third chances have come and gone. At 33, time is also not on his side. Ponting had the incentive of a long international career if he mended his ways. Symonds doesn't have that, but for a player of his ability, there is still the lucrative, and probably altogether more forgiving, IPL ahead of him.
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Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo and managing editor of ESPN Digital Media in Europe, the Middle East and Africa