September 29, 2009

Run, Ricky, run

The unthinkable is something Australia's captain must be thinking about, a lot

No Australian captain ever chewed gum the way Ricky Ponting chews gum, like a bulldozer pummelling the earth for bauxite. And when that bit's spent he spits on his palms and digs into his pockets and tears off another big white strip and mashes away some more, mouth open. Win or lose, it lends him a sinister air. But it's just that, an air, and it is the losing not the winning that people think of when they think of Ricky. It isn't fair. It just is.

Some 19th-century wiseass probably told Billy Murdoch he'd be remembered for one thing only and that was losing the Ashes in England twice. Billy probably laughed and said something like: "Balderdash!" And he would have been right, for nearly the next century and a quarter: first Billy was forgotten about, then dead, then almost never mentioned again, a little-read chapter in a Ray Robinson book. Until one day, in 2009, somebody else committed the hideous misdeed of losing two Ashes series in the old country, and then Billy's name was back in the newspapers, the serious and the silly ones, all English summer long.

Ponting would not be human if he wasn't right now feeling anxious about his legacy. The man who mucked it up, two times, that's how history will recall his captaincy, and he knows it is neither cliché nor mischief to say so. Murdoch's story tells him that. He cannot change it. No amends can be made here. This history is not for the rewriting. So what's the point in continuing? Ponting might wonder, as Allan Border did at the end, whether by staying on he is blocking team regeneration and "gumming up the works" - in Ponting's case, literally. When's the right time to leave, he might be thinking, and how will I know?

Bill Lawry didn't know. Lawry was sacked. They did not even tell him, or bother waiting for the conclusion of the 1970-71 series, a series of much grey leadership and snail-like batting, as if Lawry wished to punish the Board, Bay 13 and the entire Australian cricketing edifice for pressuring his men to play an unwanted Test in Johannesburg and making them sleep on kapok mattresses in Bombay.

The rough tenor, if not the circumstances, of Lawry's departure set a pattern. Seldom is it commented on, for proud myths are at stake here, but almost all Australian captains of the last 40 years have made a shambles of their exits.

Greg Chappell, preoccupied with business and family and wary of potentially arduous overseas trips, gave the captaincy up so many times that few people now remember when his actual exit was - rather than one exit, technically he had five of them. The first time it happened, when Kerry Packer spread open his wallet, brave Bob Simpson sailed to Australia's rescue; on tour in the West Indies, where Simmo ran the tightest of tight ships, several young Australians came to feel they needed rescuing from Simpson.

The board shouldered arms to Simpson's suggestion-cum-ultimatum that he be guaranteed a spot in the next Test, and the job passed to Graham Yallop. Yallop's final evening of a cock-up-strewn 15-week stint was spent plucking ignominy from certain victory at the MCG and watching gentle Sarfraz Nawaz reap 7 for 1. Yallop hurt a calf muscle in grade cricket the following weekend and waited for the board to call him back about the captaincy. He is still waiting.

Kim Hughes quit in tears and Border in a huff. In the end innuendo got them both. "The constant speculation, criticism and innuendo… have finally taken their toll," wept Hughes, Ponting's hero.

"I'm basically fed up with all the innuendo," grouched Border, to a Channel 7 mate, with whom he'd just played 18 holes of golf, during the course of which it sort of dawned on him that even if he was able to make a compelling case that he could bat forever and disprove the laws of ageing and gravity, the board probably wasn't going to buy it.

When Steve Waugh went, as with Border, there was a feeling that he just beat the hangman. Except that Waugh constructed a noose of his own, making his announcement in November and affording himself a summer-long farewell. Waugh's long, long goodbye produced more souvenir lift-outs than runs. On the second day in Brisbane he ran out his batting partner. On the last night in Sydney he neglected to invite his father to his party at his manager's house. Where Border offered loyal fans no opportunity to say goodbye, Waugh gave them so many chances that eventually the word started to stick in their throats.

That makes seven botched exits out of nine in 40 years, and only two Australian captains who left everyone wanting more. Ian Chappell stepped down after reclaiming then retaining the Ashes all in the one year. In his last Test as captain, the dreariest he'd ever known, he not only hit 192 but negotiated a doubling of his men's wages on the rest day. Mark Taylor, like Chappell, took action the moment he noticed his zest slacken. He retired as Australian of the Year, clapped out by a roomful of cheering journalists. Knowing that the series-winning fourth day against England in Sydney would likely be his last, he'd worn the baggy green instead of his usual floppy sunhat all day at slip.

Ponting would not be human if he wasn't right now feeling anxious about his legacy. The man who mucked it up, two times, that's how history will recall his captaincy, and he knows it is neither cliché nor mischief to say so

Fragments of these lessons from yesteryear might now be bobbing in and out of Ponting's consciousness. Already he has given up Twenty20 internationals. That leaves him playing matches of five days and 50 overs. "These days," he yawns in his latest Captain's Diary, "the middle overs in a 50-over innings are often boring" - and the middle overs are when Ponting does most of his batting! Has he looked at Australia's upcoming schedule?

"The bastards won't get me the way they got Bill," said Ian Chappell to his wife on the night he assumed the Test captaincy.

Thirty-five ODIs in 24 cities in 198 days: what a way for the bastards to get Ricky.

His recent 78 in the Headingley Test, a masterpiece of boot-a-dog-when-its-down belligerence, proved he remains Australia's most dangerous batsman. That's one good reason for staying. It is also a reason to leave, with head and average held high.

Whatever good comes now will never outweigh the bad that's already been. He can win another World Cup - but what's three worth, when you already have two? He can wrestle back the Ashes. He's done that before, in 2006-07, as well. He won't ever be loved, not as skipper, not by the cognoscenti. "Average captain," is Neil Harvey's on-the-record assessment. "Shit at the captaincy," is Jeff Thomson's. The more softly held views of the rest tend to land somewhere in between. When Steve Waugh was chaired round the SCG on his dragged-out, hanky-waving farewell lap, Ponting stood 20 metres away, hands behind back. Hard to imagine him craving a farewell lap of his own.

There is no clamour here for his head. No altogether satisfactory successor lies in wait. In some ways the question scarcely bears thinking about; some days he must think of little else - what point in continuing?

Money? Heck yes, more and more of it every ad break. Engine oil, deodorant cans, fried chicken, bats, milk, sunglasses, Xbox games, multivitamin pills, Swiss watches… thus is the transformation from Punter to Plugger to the Endorsinator complete.

But how much more does the man who has nearly everything - including Allan Border's run record - need? A shiny, spotless perch in all our memories? Too late for that. Why not just go?

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket, published in March 2009