March 25, 2011

A hero even in defeat

Australia didn't bow out without a fight, and the man who was at the heart of their World Cup dominance made the strongest stand

At the end of his final press conference as a World Cup captain, Ricky Ponting was asked if he was the tragic hero of the match. It drew a little a shrug and a wan smile. "I honestly don't know how to answer that," Ponting said, "I'm a tragic hero? I don't feel much of a hero at the moment, I must admit."

It was one of the many touching moments during the press conference. Ponting cut an elegiac figure in the press conference, as he had done most through the match. He answered the questions, even the inane ones, with sincerity, dignity, and the occasional bit of humour. How did he rate India's chances? "Better than ours." Did he consider playing John Hastings ahead of Jason Krejza? "Five fast bowlers? I can imagine what you guys would have said then." But there was no hiding what he felt: he looked gutted.

I had been at his press conference in Colombo after Australia had lost their last league match against Pakistan. It was his first loss as a World Cup captain, and it ended a winning streak for Australia that spanned 12 years and 34 matches. But Ponting had looked upbeat. His form would turn around; the trophy could still be won.

On Thursday, though, his eyes looked glassy, his visage drawn. After enduring a wretched World Cup as a batsman, Ponting had produced his best innings of the tournament, and arguably, the best innings of the match. And though this "wasn't the first time I have scored a hundred and we've lost'', there would be no more World Cup innings for him. Australia and Ricky Ponting, World Cup colossuses both, would be going home the next day. "I feel devastated," he said a few times.

Sachin Tendulkar, the author of many solos during India's days of misery, would know the feeling. Even in this World Cup Tendulkar has scored two hundreds but India didn't win on either occasion. On Thursday, his was one of the three Indian half-centuries and his team got over the line. He would take that over his 100th hundred, which must wait for another day.

Australia have produced an abundance of champion cricketers since Ponting's arrival but very few of them have had their character tested as severely.

It was Ponting's first international hundred in 13 months, and he couldn't have chosen a better match. On a pitch that turned in the first hour, Ponting came in to bat with two offspinners - one of them his old nemesis Harbhajan Singh - in operation, and he built his innings gradually and expertly, playing late, watching the ball and working it into the gaps. Unlike his last World Cup hundred against India, it wasn't a commanding performance, but masterful nonetheless. It wasn't his fault that the Australian innings stuttered and withered away.

"It might take me a while to think about my own innings tonight," he said, "Just how I feel at the moment and the fact that we're going home on the plane. I don't think I'll actually think much about it at all.

"It could be my last World Cup game. If I end up having made a hundred in my last World Cup game, then I guess I can be pretty happy at the end of the day. I've always been one of those guys that's never really reflected on what I've done until a lot later. I've never really been a stats man, that doesn't worry me."

Ponting and Brett Lee were the only two members in the current side who were part of that team in 2003 that had mauled India in final. And both gave all of themselves to keep Australia in the hunt. Lee bowled a sharp and tight opening spell and came back to provide the breakthrough with the wicket of MS Dhoni. He then returned for a final tilt with a bandage over his right eye after a despairing dive ended up with the ball smashing into his head. But there were no last-gasp twists in store for Australia: Suresh Raina lofted his first ball in to the stands, and effectively ended Australia's World Cup reign.

But they didn't go without a fight, and the man who was at the heart of their World Cup dominance made the strongest stand. Australia have produced an abundance of champion cricketers since his arrival but very few of them have had their character tested as severely. Even in defeat, Ricky Ponting has gone out a hero.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

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