Punter's still burning bright
Some girls they want a handsome Dan or some good-lookin' Joe
On their arms some girls like a sweet-talkin' Romeo
Well round here baby I learned you get what you can get
So if you're rough enough for love, honey, I'm tougher than the rest
- "Tougher Than The Rest", Bruce Springsteen
Sympathy for Ricky Ponting has never come easy. How could it? No international cricketer has ever finished on the winning side more frequently. None has led his country on more occasions or to more victories. No Australian has scored more runs for his country. No Australian cricketer, not even Dennis Lillee or Shane Warne, has got up more noses. Somebody from the Australian Institute of Public Affairs once claimed that Ponting's critics were members of the "self-loathing left", which rather understates the case.
Just seven years ago we were bidding adieu to Steve Waugh and stating with absolute conviction that the game would never know a more determined or resilient competitor; since he succeeded him as Australia's conductor, Punter has occasionally made Waugh look softer than jelly.
Still, never say never. Right now, I'm not sure I'd want to be in his shoes. How, given how much he professes to be enjoying himself, Ponting must envy Kurtis Patterson, the New South Wales left-hander* who on Monday struck the 16th boundary of an audacious innings to become, at 18 years and 206 days, the new youngest centurion in Sheffield Shield annals. In the over after tea, having been clattered on the helmet on 84, Patterson was greeted with a squall of short-pitchers and hammered 20 runs. "It was understandable they would come out and bowl short at me in that initial period after I got hit," he admitted, "so I backed myself." Unlike Ponting, he is just starting out. Unlike Ponting, he has nothing to lose bar a burgeoning reputation. Fear, plainly, is still a stranger.
Not that Ponting has ever been found lacking in that quarter. Justin Langer, one of the shrewder judges of cricketing potential, detected the inner drive on their first Ashes tour together in 1997: "I don't think Punter will ever go to his grave, or come to the end of his career, wondering if he could have done more with his ability or talent."
That the latest of his Test wins should coincide with his most assertively productive innings in 13 months was the measure of the batsman. That that 62 in Johannesburg should underpin such a remarkable comeback from the depths of Newlands, at a moment when failure ranked bottom of the list of options for self and team, was the measure of the man.
THE COMING WEEKS, nonetheless, will challenge him as never before. For professional sportsfolk, being able to nominate the date and venue of one's final bow is a luxury denied to all but the luckiest. For every Waugh and Seymour Nurse there are scores of Graeme Pollocks and Steve Harmisons, never mind the hordes of one-cap wonders and one-tour blunders. To date, Ponting, publicly at least, has acted as if such considerations are a million miles from mind. Which suggests, encouragingly for him, that he subscribes to WG's fabled theory: "There is no crisis in cricket - there is only the next ball."
Langer defined mental toughness as "performing consistently in all conditions for an extended period of time". Waugh himself went further, characterising it as "believing you are better than the opposition, being brutally honest with yourself and always looking to improve your game". The question now is whether Ponting can tick all those boxes.
The appetite, it would appear, remains, if not unslakeable, then certainly hearty, not to say ample. He could have retired after the last Ashes series, but that would have meant going out on a low. South Africa and India loomed: two unmissable opportunities for redemption. Unmissable, that is, for someone with the uncommon self-belief of the born winner.
All the indications, moreover, are that he still believes he is worth his place. "Ricky Ponting will not play Test cricket if he doesn't think that he deserves his spot in the side," Stuart MacGill assured the Sydney Morning Herald the other day. "That means if everyone else in the top six is consistently making runs and there is a clear successor in the wings making piles of runs in Shield cricket then he will know the time has come. That is not the situation he finds himself in." As events at the Wanderers confirmed, however belatedly.
That he is seeking improvement cannot be doubted. He lasted just 40 balls in his first three innings of the series in South Africa, collecting eight runs and three leg-befores; whatever the source, however multifaceted the causes, the leap from there to that 62 was considerable.
Ian Chappell once observed that Ponting tends to bat as he speaks - the shots flow too fast, too soon, too unquestioningly. As if to ram Chappell Sr's critique back down his throat, he took his time from the off, stretching extensively before facing his first ball. Not until his tenth did he get off the mark, and with a calm, contented push at that. Nor did he fall over as he played across his pads. Yet still, amid the self-restraint, the trademark strokes sparkled: a straight-driven four off Dale Steyn essayed with timing and placement of thrilling exactitude, a ferociously dismissive pull off Morne Morkel that bellowed defiance. The tone had been set by Vernon Philander's two early strikes; Ponting recalibrated it. He may have gone too soon on the final morning but by then hope had displaced despair: the hardest yards had been done.
It was as if, having long since asserted his statistical superiority over all Australian batsmen bar Bradman, Ponting needed to walk to the brink of the precipice to find a fresh goal. In fact, he may have found a couple. It is almost irrelevant whether it is an implicit goal (wresting Waugh's crown as Australia's most-capped Test player), an explicit one (helping his country recover its cricketing poise, as he has often stated) or, more likely, a combination of both. It took him two years to reach that point of no return; when he finally peered over the edge, he evidently decided he'd better get back to where he once belonged. It was nothing more, and nothing less, than an act of will.
As Gideon Haigh has pointed out, Ponting is likelier to unleash his ire on an opponent who fakes aggression than one who exudes it at all times. Which makes it extremely hard to believe he could countenance inconsistency in himself. As the final curtain hovers, performers often feel the urge to change; increasingly conscious of how posterity would treat him, Waugh himself was certainly far more likeable as the end neared. By vacating the captain's throne Ponting gave himself the best chance he could to change, to however minuscule a degree. Now he is no longer captain, and hence no longer feels obliged to do the lion's share of the growling, he has apparently traded stripes for spots. Always the exemplar, seldom the enabler, he can only inspire by deed - which is exactly what his young comrades need.
No longer, furthermore, is he Public Enemy No. 1. As he walked through the doors of that last-chance saloon in Jo'burg and moseyed to the bar, the boos boomed. When he walked back, he was cheered. And not just by any crowd, but a Wanderers crowd, a stiff opponent no matter how many come through the gate. Never before, outwardly, has he seemed to care about such incidental trifles. Here, though, was a major transition: a far cry from England 2009; another mountain conquered, however unconsciously sought. It is far from a stretch to imagine him having derived a modicum of pleasure from being the good guy rather than the bad or ugly one. He could get used to it.
So now, you might imagine, would be the time to go. On a high. Without risking the possibility that Ishant Sharma could humiliate him again, let alone some Bracewell or other. On the other hand, given that the opportunity for Ashes redemption lies 20 Tests and more than 18 months distant, what better way to call it a day than by ending Australia's famine against India, now eight winless Tests and counting? As the lone survivor of the Hayden-Langer-Ponting "engine room", and thus the sole remaining link to that most formidable pool of baggy-green cappers, he may feel he owes the Southern Cross that much.
The reality, of course, is that while anyone possessed of such an intensely competitive spirit was always liable to offend those to whom winning matters less (i.e. pretty much everyone), he owes Australia, cricket and himself precisely nothing - other than a parting smile.
Rougher than the rest? Maybe. Tougher than the rest? You bet.
* The article was amended at 07.05GMT on November 30 to note that Kurtis Patterson did not score his century against Tasmania
Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton