December 4, 2011

There are runs in Ricky still

On the evidence of his last two Tests, the Australian batsman looks to have found some of his old touch

Ricky Ponting hit a glorious boundary off the back foot this week to bring up a second successive half-century in Test cricket. Doesn't sound like much of an achievement for a batsman who has amassed more than 12,000 runs in Test cricket, but it was confirmation that the rejuvenation of the former captain is progressing well.

The first sign that things in the Ponting world were on the improve was a pull shot he hit at the Wanderers on the way to helping Australia claim a pulsating victory over South Africa. Where Ponting had been over-committing on the front foot and playing his pull shots in the air for about 12 months, this time he transferred his weight onto the back foot and hit the ball like a rocket into the ground and to the boundary. That was a Ponting-in-his-prime pull shot.

When Ponting is a little anxious or in the mood to dictate at all costs, he often has a tendency to over-commit to the front foot. When that happens, his back-foot play is not authoritative and he's more vulnerable. Consequently, those two shots, the one at the Wanderers and then the satisfying one at the Gabba, were good signs, as he tries to prolong his successful career.

Throughout his career Ponting's honest approach has been a strong point in his development. From the time he announced publicly that he had a problem with alcohol, to calling a team meeting after the 2005 Ashes loss, he has been able to face his demons. Once again he has faced up to a lean trot with the bat and through hard work been able to rehabilitate his game.

It's doubtful if Ponting can consistently produce big innings like in his glory days, but if he's prepared to play at a slightly lower standard, he can still be a useful contributor to this young team.

The hardest thing for an ageing batsman to do is to dredge up peak concentration on a regular basis. There are days when the concentration is still strong but there are times when the mind won't do as it's told. Those are the days when batting is a real grind, and it often results in starts that aren't converted into something substantial. If Ponting is prepared to put up with those frustrations, and more importantly, the selectors' patience isn't thoroughly tested, he can still be valuable.

For some players their pride is such that it won't allow them to play at a slightly lower standard. Those players generally retire before the selectors can wield the axe. But even though Ponting has enormous pride in his performance, his desire to remain a competitor on the international stage is so strong, he's been prepared to lower his sights a little. The downside is, he could leave himself at the mercy of the selectors. As long as the selectors are prepared to "give him a wink" when they believe his time is up, he can still play a little longer and retire with his dignity intact.

Ponting is genuinely enthused about the young talent in the Australian side and he loves the role of mentor. Michael Clarke is happy with that situation and regularly refers in glowing terms to Ponting's contribution being far greater than the value of his runs.

One of those young talents to excite is the attacking offspinner Nathan Lyon. His style of bowling, with deceptive flight, good bounce and a little turn, will always test batsmen, and even if he's not taking wickets he helps the cause. Following a stagnant period after Shane Warne's retirement, where spin bowling has been in the doldrums, Lyon is a breath of fresh air.

Clarke's handling of Lyon has also been refreshing, and this is one aspect of captaincy where he's superior to Ponting. It can sometimes be a disaster when a recently retired skipper remains in the team. Often it can hamper the new captain, but the current arrangement seems to be working well. Clarke has stamped his authority on the job and Ponting remains in the background when it comes to on-field tactics.

Judging by the back-foot shots that are again flowing from Ponting's bat, he has brought about an adjustment to his use-by-date. His last two innings have pushed it back rather than brought it forward.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist