'Thinking about the team probably dragged my batting down a bit'
It was on his first Test tour of Sri Lanka, in 1999, that Ricky Ponting first harboured thoughts of captaincy. On his second, in 2004, he was the captain, commanding the team for the first time since Steve Waugh's retirement. Seven years on and Ponting is back in the island nation for his first series since handing the job to Michael Clarke. He spoke to ESPNcricinfo about Sri Lanka, batting, and captaincy, among other things.
On the 1999 tour of Sri Lanka you played very well at No. 6, but you never enjoyed batting there?
It was always foreign to me, batting that far down the order. I've always been a top-order player, whether it was junior cricket or state cricket, I was always in the top three or four. So when I first got a crack in the Australian team it was difficult batting down there, and more difficult when you played in conditions like here or India, where you're starting against spin the majority of the time or you're starting against the reverse-swinging ball and things like that. But that was a good tour for me. I have a lot of good memories from that tour and the way that I played, I made a hundred in Colombo and made 90-odd in Kandy and 50-odd not out in the second innings as well.
That's when Steve [Waugh] came out and said that I was the future of Australian cricket and that sort of thing, and that really got me thinking about leadership down the track. To have that success - I hadn't had success in India before that and didn't have any immediately after either, in similar conditions - to come here and play Murali as I did and score a few runs was certainly great for my confidence.
What elements of that success can you now pass on to the likes of Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja?
I've learned a lot over the years from playing in these types of conditions. We're not used to playing in conditions like this in Australia, and you don't learn the really fine aspects of playing spin in Australia. The wicket conditions [there] mean you can get away with hitting across the spin or pushing out and defending hard at the ball, because it's so true off the surface, and you can't do those things here. Even in one-day cricket, most of the guys in the middle order were starting against spin over here, so I, or we, have been doing a lot of work with Shaun and the younger blokes, just giving them a bit of a base on how to start against spin bowling and play spin bowling well.
I think we're more conscious around the team now with that sort of stuff than ever before. I remember, when I first came into the side no one was really willing to share information about the way they were doing it, the way they were playing. The senior players sort of let you figure it out for yourself. But we pride ourselves on sharing information and trying to help the younger guys out as much as possible, and I guess the team is in a place at the moment where we need to be doing that and teaching the guys as quickly as possible.
The next tour here in 2004 was your first as captain, and while it was a 3-0 sweep, each Test match was close. A nerve-wracking start to captaincy?
Definitely it was for me, stepping into the captaincy, and we were behind on first innings in every Test match and ended up winning every Test match. That's the way cricket is played on the subcontinent. There's lots of exciting Test matches but everything seems to happen late in the games on the subcontinent, so you do have a lot of close finishes, when you probably think the game is going nowhere. And that is what we have to understand about this tour as well. We'll get some very good batting wickets for the first three or four days of these games, and then all of a sudden things can change really quickly late in the game, and that's the way it worked out in '04. Luckily we were on the winning end in those Test matches. [It was] a great way for me to start and a great result for the boys to achieve in those conditions.
One thing we'll be really careful of this time around is, we won't overplay the conditions. Quite often when we arrive in somewhere like Sri Lanka or India, we talk a lot about the wickets and how much they're going to spin, and at the end of the day it's a cricket pitch the same length as anywhere else you play, and the grounds you play on are quite similar as well. As long as you work out your plan as to how you want to play in the nets and the practice game, and you apply that to the best of your ability in the game, then you'll be fine. It's important we don't make too much of it.
From a distance your batting looks in good shape. Is that how it feels to you?
Yeah, it does. I've felt really good right from the start of the tour, to tell the truth. Getting off to a good start, 50 in the first game and 90-odd in the second game was a really good start for me, but it's probably been more the way that I've felt, how I've been seeing the ball, and I haven't had to really take too many risks. I've been able to score freely enough and chasing a couple of small totals in the first couple of games probably helped that as well. I was a little disappointed the way things finished off, getting 30, and the way I got out was a bit disappointing, but I feel like I'm in control. You just know within yourself if you're batting well or not batting well, and at the moment things feel pretty good.
Much has been said about the dynamic between you and Michael Clarke, now he is the captain, but what about as batsmen? At Nos. 3 and 4 you should be looking for partnerships together.
In the Test series, definitely. Through our careers, even in the dominant teams, we haven't actually spent a lot of time together out in the middle. We had a great partnership in Hobart [against Pakistan in 2010], and we know how important we are to the team. We both probably over-emphasised that a bit too much last year, and put a little too much pressure on ourselves to be the men that were going to hold the hopes of the team up. So Michael's been very good on this tour - Man of the Series, and the captaincy seems to be sitting really well with him. We need to score runs, but at the same time we've got to not worry about the pressures that come with it. I'm pretty sure that if we play the way we know we can play here, then we should be able to make some good scores together.
Would you say you're complimentary players, with styles that ask different questions of bowlers and captains?
Yeah, probably, if you look at the way we play fast bowling and spin bowling, it's probably vastly different. Michael tends to use his feet against the spinners a bit more than I do, and we both probably play fast bowling a little bit differently as well, so if you sat back and looked at it that way, you'd think we'd be a very successful partnership together, but so far it probably hasn't been as productive as we would have liked. Hopefully that changes in the next couple of years.
As captain your own batting seemed to lose some of its authority in direct proportion to how much time and worry you had about the team you were leading.
There's no doubt that it got harder, with the team performance, the team change, and the pressures I was putting on myself as a result of those things made batting harder. Now since I've stepped away, I've probably been more productive in the last couple of series than I had been for a while before that. And it was a big part of my thinking as well. One, I thought the timing was right to give Michael the opportunity with the right amount of time before the next Ashes series - to give him the appropriate time to get ready; but at the same time I honestly felt if I could lift a lot of the responsibility off my shoulders and the thinking that goes into picking teams and playing, that hopefully I could bring a bit of good stuff out.
You took pride in how you could compartmentalise your game.
That had always been one of my strengths, being able to separate captaincy, on-field/off-field stuff and my own batting. I handled that pretty well. But more time was being taken up with the captaincy stuff, more thinking outside of what I had to do for myself as well - probably worrying more about individuals, worrying more about team performance. It's not that I neglected my own game at all. I was working as hard if not harder, even too hard, on my own game. But the team performance was starting to play on my mind more than I wanted it to and it probably dragged my batting down a little bit. Now I'm free of that stuff and I can give advice when asked. I've still got a really important role around the team with developing the younger guys as quick as I can, but most importantly I've got to score runs that are going to be enough to win games of cricket for Australia, and that's my main objective for the immediate future.
One of the recurring events for you was the close and unfortunate run-out. One thing the run-outs all had in common was that you never dived for the crease. Never done it or considered it?
I don't know if I ever have. Maybe I wasn't sure if the ball was going to my end or what, but I'm not sure if I've ever done it. I can remember once at the Gabba doing it, but I don't think I'd ever done it much before. A lot of the time it can depend on what foot you're on as well - which foot you take off and whether you want to dive. I might have been able to save myself a couple of times if I had dived. The other thing, as well, with all of those is I wasn't on strike once either.
Rahul Dravid has just provided a tremendous inspiration for all batsmen of advancing years.
There are a few. Sachin [Tendulkar], [Jacques] Kallis had a great last year as well, Dravid now. It just goes to show what class can do in the game of cricket, and I've always said it about class players, that you never write them off, because they have just got that little bit of something extra that most blokes haven't got. I remember after the last series in India there was a lot of talk and speculation about Dravid being finished, and I went and found him at the end of the series and said, "Don't you even think about retiring", because I just saw some stuff in a few of his innings that suggested he was still a very, very good player. I just said, "Don't let them wear you down, don't let them get you down." I received a similar text message before and after the Ashes from him as well. So that sort of stuff is good. But it's not only good for guys of my age to see guys doing that; it's good for the younger blokes to see it as well, to know that if you keep doing the right things and working hard, if you've got talent, then age, I don't think, is ever a barrier in our game.
All those batsmen you've mentioned have enormous reserves of concentration, and the advance of the shorter forms has left less time for that as players develop. How can a young batsman learn the art of concentration and batting long hours if not by doing it in the middle?
You don't. It's as simple as that. That's the big worry I've had about Twenty20 cricket, and even other shorter forms of the game being played at really developmental times in kids' careers.
Cricket for me, when I was growing up, if I was batting, it meant I was batting until someone got me out, and if that took them a week then that's how long it took them. The guys who played in my era that's what it was all about - not going out there and facing two overs and then being told that you had to go and stand in the field; that's not what cricket is. And that's the worry I have about a lot of the developmental phases. Even Under-17s and Under-19s now, they're playing T20 games in national championships, and at the detriment of two-day games.
Good state players these days are averaging 35. If you were averaging 35 when I was playing, your dad would go and buy you a basketball or a footy and tell you to play that. So there's areas of concern there. I don't know how you change them. Everyone we listen to says that kids want to play T20 cricket, but the real cricket-loving kids? They don't want to play T20 cricket; it's the kids that aren't really that good or technically that good who want to play T20 cricket.
Back in 2008 you said India were bound to have a difficult period when they started to lose their great players, as Australia had done. After the England series loss are they at that point now?
They still haven't reached that point that I thought they'd get to yet. They've still got that crux, those great batters, in that side. Their bowling was obviously made to look very, very ordinary in England.
The thing about India, though, is, I'm not sure exactly how many away series they won to actually get to the No. 1 Test ranking. We all know they have never travelled that well anyway. That's why you've got to give England credit for what they have done. They have won pretty much everywhere they have been the last few years [England have won series in Australia, New Zealand and Bangladesh]. To get to where they are from where they were is a great result for them.
Time will tell with India now. Dravid was probably one who was in the gun before the rest of them, and he's found a way to come through. They're all about the same age and they won't go on forever. They will be tested more than anything with their bowlers. I think we found, even in the last few years, that a lot of their spin bowling probably isn't as strong as it used to be, and if you take Zaheer [Khan] out of their fast bowling stocks there's not much left there either, so they've got an interesting couple of years ahead.
India are also a little like Australia in the extent to which they are pulled in different directions by the money on offer in T20 cricket.
They are. They're probably prioritising it as much as anyone is, aren't they, with the IPL being based there and the commitment some players have to certain franchises and tournaments going on around that. So I reckon a good example of where their cricket is at is the fact they played RP Singh in that last Test match, who hadn't played a first-class game since January. While they have got the great players they have had, they'll remain competitive, but once those guys move on it'll be really interesting for them, and I think South Africa will be exactly the same. Once [Graeme] Smith and Kallis and [Dale] Steyn go out of that team it'll be interesting to see how they rebuild as well.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo