January 2, 2012

Ponting's fine, Ponting's odd

In Melbourne he began both innings serenely, before losing form a bit. He now seems to need to think where once he barely had to

A sort of calenture - the tropical delirium that sweeps over far-from-home sailors, who imagine the seas to be green fields and desire to leap into them - has engulfed Australia's old captain. The ball comes, his feet move, the bat feels light and good in his hands. Pulls and hook shots spring off it, same as they ever did. He longs to leap, to wave his bat appreciatively at a crowd over the fence that's clapping - and these people are clapping - but out of the corners of their mouths, he sees, they are murmuring too.

Ricky Ponting is batting well. Ricky Ponting is batting odd. Consider Melbourne, most recent. In the first innings he fished out of his kitbag three main scoring strokes. Most reassuring, anytime a bowler wandered leg side, was the clip off his pads or hip, hit with a very old ruthlessness. Most dramatic was the pull/hook, this one hit seemingly at random, premeditated, sometimes from a wooden school ruler's distance outside off stump, and always with low, fast hands and his eyes fixed on the ball. The push-and-scamper for a single was Ponting's third scoring shot. Occasionally, in little clumps, something snapped; his 83rd ball, from offspinner Ravichandran Ashwin, provoked a sweep shot - a fissure in Ponting's memory - and 86th ball he swept again. Also, just once, with butterfly-soft wrists, he unfurled an on-drive - he was fielding at the time, an air shot, in imitation of a real shot Sachin Tendulkar had just played. Mostly Ponting stuck to his three shots and when all three seemed in working order there hung in the mid-afternoon a feeling of timelessness.

Between scoring shots in that first innings, Ponting let balls pass or blocked them. Sometimes after blocking he took a big exaggerated stride, or two strides, and froze in that pose. For the cameras? This was new. You noticed it. Ponting is batting great, it made you think, where once you'd just think: Ponting is batting. Think. The crowd's murmurs, a sound Ponting never used to hear, are making him think, something he once barely had to do. "I think," said Ponting, "some of the technical things I was working on were a little bit better this week."

The way he said that, it was as if a game's a game, just one game - which it is, and isn't. Usually a batsman bats twice. In the second innings Ponting hooked at nothing. He pulled a total of two singles. This was over the course of two-and-a-half hours' batting. In front of the wicket, he did the push-and-scamper for a single only three times.

Ponting's best scoring shot, this second innings, played pinball with the gully fieldsman - sending him sprawling left, grappling to the right, sometimes with a stiff-wristed steer, other times with a hammer swipe. Twice, Ponting climbed on tiptoes and jumped with his whole body into the shot. Forty thousand people were in on a blowy, blue-sky Wednesday. They didn't come specifically because this might be goodbye: there had been enough maybe-goodbyes for Ponting already, and a crowd can put itself through that wringer only so many times, it needs to cotton-wool emotions. Ponting - this second-innings Ponting - pleased them. He confused them.

Between scoring shots, Ponting let balls pass or blocked them. Sometimes after blocking he took a big exaggerated stride, or two strides, and froze in that pose. For the cameras? This was new. You noticed it. Ponting is batting great, it made you think

Next day he fielded. Something I'd never noticed before - Ponting standing, hands on hips, between deliveries. Then I watched him catch a ball that was tossed to him, hold it up, peer at the seam, rub it, start swivelling his arms around ready to growl out instructions, and then, no longer captain, stop swivelling them.

Ponting's two weirdly different innings had two elements, both curious, in common. First, he began them serenely - this despite, in the first innings, falling over three times (falling over didn't stop him scoring) and swinging, missing and getting sconed by an Umesh Yadav bumper (he swung and missed too fast, which is mere over-enthusiasm, not too slow, which implies old age). Second, he was prone, both times, to losing a bit of attentiveness and skating alarmingly out of form, whatever form is, for several-over intervals at a time. All this, when you threaded it together, was something curiouser than curious: it was uncharacteristic. Ponting, typically, never began innings serenely, not even his epic masterpieces of yore; and he never ever let his form lapse. Getting in - that was the trick. Once in, he was superglued in, and rain-dancing elephants couldn't shake him out.

After Ponting's first innings, a 62, a colossus of Australian cricket punditry squatted beside the MCG press box's automated tea urn. "Can't carry on a score," the colossus said. "Drop him. Selectors are in a time warp. It's beyond a joke." After Ponting's second innings, a 60, no one in earshot said anything like that. But Ponting knows a 62 and a 60 only buys him time. It doesn't buy him peace.

In cricket, you see, hundreds are the thing. People right now are mildly obsessed with Tendulkar hitting his hundredth "international" hundred - a figure arrived at by totting up his Test and one-day centuries. Tendulkar is currently marooned on 99 hundreds. Cross out hundreds struck against Kenya, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Namibia - all weakling attacks who many rational-minded cricket people would happily cross out - and he has only 81 hundreds. Does that make the mild obsession with 100 mildly irrational, or, at best, notional?

Maybe. But Ponting hasn't hit a hundred of the Test match variety in 718 days. Home must feel far away.

Funny game, cricket, with its preoccupation with round numerical landmarks, though there's more to it than that. Hundreds win matches. A couple of 60s would have won Ponting the tournament, were this golf, a game he loves. Golf's a game he may soon be playing a lot more of - soon, not yet.

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 and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harmon on January 4, 2012, 22:26 GMT

    All was fine with this article till the author decided to do some needless funny thing on Sachin's record. 1st, why should a batsman's record against a weak team not be counted? 2nd, even with that, Sachin still is way ahead of Ponting (or anyone else), so its not that Sachin has filled his boots with some easy sand on the beach, he has dug the hard soil to strike gold. 3rd, the 100 100 feat would be a terrific feat, the only reason the author is not giving it its due is because its is Sachin and not Ponting nearing that. In the end, one must point out that Ponting has been pretty awful for about 3 years now (although he is a proven champ) so if he gets 2 50s after so many months wait it does not mean much.

  • Damien on January 4, 2012, 8:14 GMT

    @ its.rachit, Did you not read my stats comparing Ponting's and Tendulkar's stats against those great bowlers in the late 90's? Ponting's record was better, which means Tendulkar scored runs against weaker attacks. And just because Cricinfo didn't select Ponting in THEIR best teams, doesn't mean a thing. In many other all-time XI teams selected by other great players, Ponting is selected. I'm not trying to diminish the record of Tendulkar, because clearly he is one of the all-time greats. I'm just sick and tired of Tendulkar fans trashing the reputation of Ponting, who is also one of the all-time greats. And FYI, Ponting's first 5800 runs came at an average of 56!

  • Bharath on January 3, 2012, 18:41 GMT

    Ponting is playing with all tricks in his trade,you have to imagine,a guy who dint score a ton for past couple of years and struggling to get a place in playing XI,a team like india,a good quality side,lot of eyes watching you,that guy comes n scores back to back 60's is very good according to presemt scenerio.You can't just write hiim off,he is there to make a statement and he will make it on his own terms.Tomorrow he may score a 60 again or even the ton he is desparately waiting for.Wether its 100th ton or a ton which you're desparately waiting for 2 years all that matters is your team wins and for that even a half century would do.

  • Srijith on January 3, 2012, 15:13 GMT

    @RandyOZ - the 'other guy' is playing for records? sir, it would be great if you could put some stats to substantiate.

  • Aidan on January 3, 2012, 15:07 GMT

    Why does one eyed bias towards the player representing ones respective country cause people to be so mean-spirited and slanderous to one another? Ponting has been a great player; when he was in his prime he decimated attacks all around the world in both forms of international cricket. - This article is NOT about Tendulka so I have noting to say about him here - but hey; rest assured I will give him glowing praises when he get's his 100th - 100.

  • heavy on January 3, 2012, 14:33 GMT

    i would have to go for tendulkar, lara and ponting then kaliis based solely on there skill. the next question is then how well did these guys perform when captain.tendulkar was a flop lara didnt do anything special till his second stint and kallis if i can remember has never been a permanent captain despite playing international cricket for 16 years. Ponting is not austrailia's greatest captain but managed to keep up his consistency with the bat for a while so on that basis he would go ahead of tendulkar in that catergory.

  • natmastak on January 3, 2012, 12:45 GMT

    @ author, why exclude centuries against minnows, and even if that criteria is applied,then your distant second has only 55 centuries against the 81 of the BEST.

  • Raghunadha Sarma on January 3, 2012, 12:27 GMT

    I'm taking only contemporary players... Lara... Attacking Batsman, Better Fielder, Average Captain... Kallis... Fine Batsmen, Fine Bowler, Fine Fielder... Ponting... Good Batsman, Brilliant Fielder, Better Captain... Tendulkar... Brilliant Batsman, part time bowler, average fielder, pathetic and worst captain... Dravid... Better Batsmen, Brilliant Slip Fielder, Ordinary Captain... Who is great??? Dont even Think about it... No one can say... They are all great...

  • Rachit on January 3, 2012, 12:05 GMT

    @dms - sachin played just abt 0 odd matches till the end of the 90s and made 5800 runs at an average of around 58 ... read the stats .. and then comment ... and ne1 (and i hope u do) wud agree that the bowling quality in the 90s was far far better than it is now ... ponting did not reach an average of 50 till the 2000s .. when the walsh, ambrose had retired and donald, wasim and others were past their prime ... u can argue whatever u want ... but if ponting was not even selected in suatralis all time XI and sachin made it to the world all time XI ... i rest my case there ... all arguments end ... and the indian fans did not select the team ... greats of the game did ... u can find fault with that as well ...

  • Dummy4 on January 3, 2012, 12:02 GMT

    The fact is only one who is match winner Sachin Tendulkar ? or Ponting Sachin is always a match loser century maker

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