February 21, 2012

The facts of Ponting's ODI life

In the manner of his departure from ODIs, he has mirrored the relentless and single-minded way in which he played them. No fluff, just facts

In the film Moneyball, Billy Beane and his assistant Peter Brand act out the conversation between a baseball club owner and a player he is cutting. Playing the owner, Brand attempts to move Beane on by sitting him down and talking sensitively about the situation, but his careful words are rather more effective in enraging than placating Beane's sacked player. Demonstrating his own, matter-of-fact approach, Beane sums it up: "They're professional ball players. Just be straight with them. No fluff, just facts. 'Pete, I gotta let you go. Jack's office will handle the details' … would you rather get a bullet to the head, or five to the chest and bleed to death?"

The end of Ricky Ponting's incomparable ODI career came with a swiftness that Beane would have been proud of, after a phone call from John Inverarity to indicate that the national selectors were moving on. In that moment, a journey of 375 matches, 13,704 runs, 30 centuries and three World Cup wins was ended, and ended in a most unsentimental way. Inverarity said there was no room for sentiment in the world of elite sport, and a day later Ponting agreed with him. He still felt he had something to offer the ODI team, but had no problem with the clear-headed and clearly spelled out decision to let him go.

Ponting has been a professional cricketer all his adult life, and has seldom stood for ceremony. Matters of legacy or image have invariably run a distant second to the matter of how Australia might best win cricket matches, and for 17 years Ponting has pursued Test and ODI victories with greater thirst than any player to have played the international game. He did not seek a farewell match - even though Australia's next was in his hometown, Hobart - nor a farewell tournament. In the manner of his departure from ODIs, Ponting has mirrored the relentless and single-minded way in which he played them. No fluff, just facts.

Limited-overs cricket was the avenue by which many saw Ponting for the first time. Before Australia he represented Australia A in the 1994-95 World Series, showing plenty of the poise and balance at the age of 19 that had led the then national academy coach Rod Marsh to make plenty of bold predictions about what Ponting could achieve in the game. He would go on to debut for his country during a one-day series in New Zealand in February 1995 and a month later toured the Caribbean, playing in the ODI series lost by Mark Taylor's tourists, then served as a reserve batsman while they shifted the power-base of Test cricket by unseating the West Indies at home.

Soon promoted to No. 3, in those early days Ponting would often bat in a cap for Australia, irrespective of whether he was facing Sri Lankan spin or West Indian pace. A bold century against the West Indians in Jaipur during the 1996 World Cup provided an early taste of how good he would be in the format. Later in that tournament, the Australians faced Richie Richardson's men a second time, in a white-knuckle semi-final in Mohali. Years later, in a demonstration of his keen memory but also the value he placed on each international appearance, Ponting would recall how the glare of the sun on the pitch made the early going difficult.

Difficulty accompanied Ponting at times through his formative summers, and it was during the triangular series of 1998-99 against England and Sri Lanka that he had to face up to alcohol and behavioural problems. Sporting a black eye from an eventful night out at Sydney's Bourbon and Beefsteak hotel, Ponting spoke frankly of the issues he had to address, having been suspended for three matches by Cricket Australia. He emerged from the episode a more focused and mature cricketer and young man, and within a year Steve Waugh had begun to speak of him as a potential captain.

Most laudable was Ponting's belief in Andrew Symonds, and insistence that he be included in the 2003 World Cup squad. Up to that point, Symonds had demonstrated only sporadic bursts of his undoubted talent at the top level, but Ponting persisted with him

At the time, Ponting's fielding was the source of almost as much inspiration and awe as his batting. For a time he was undisputed as not only the best but also the most predatory fielder in the world of ODIs, as seldom a match went by without a Ponting direct hit. There was a pattern to it. A batsman would chance a quick single and, responding to Adam Gilchrist's cry of "Punter!", Ponting would swoop from midwicket or cover to field and throw in a whippet's motion. Side on or facing three stumps, bowler's end or batsman's, Ponting's eye was deadly, and he turned more than one match with his swiftness.

There were catches too, of course. One flying dive to claim a screeching Sanath Jayasuriya cut at backward point during the 1999 triangular series in Sri Lanka was so startling that it sent a commentating Tony Greig into paroxysms of delight usually associated with his reactions to the feats of Australia's opponents. While the likes of Shane Warne and Mark Waugh still occupied the slips, Ponting was free to roam the in-field, and prevented many a run simply by being there.

By 2002, Ponting was ready to assume the ODI captaincy, and it was bestowed on him for that year's tour of South Africa after Steve Waugh had been removed from the post by the chairman of selectors Trevor Hohns. He relied heavily on the advice of Darren Lehmann early on, developing a captaincy style that had his own performances with the bat to rely on, but also showed signs of imagination at times - often moreso than his Test captaincy.

While he was surrounded by players of high class and even higher confidence, Ponting wrought outstanding displays from a succession of solid workers also. Andy Bichel, Brad Hogg and James Hopes were among those who would never join Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist alongside Ponting as undisputed greats, but at times their contributions were all the more critical.

Most laudable was Ponting's belief in Andrew Symonds, and insistence that he be included in the 2003 World Cup squad. Up to that point, Symonds had demonstrated only sporadic bursts of his undoubted talent at the top level, but Ponting persisted with him, even after the preceding triangular series in Australia had shown precious little evidence the muscular allrounder was ready for it. That decision was the first episode in the most meritorious passage of Ponting's ODI captaincy, and perhaps the finest in all his days with Australia.

The squad was stunned soon after its arrival in South Africa by the news that Shane Warne had tested positive for a banned drug, and was to be sent home. Minds were racing as they faced up to Pakistan in the tournament opener, and positively sprinting at 4 for 86. What followed was an innings of the highest quality from Symonds, the man and the moment meeting perfectly, and Ponting's team would gather strength with every subsequent match.

In the final, Ponting crafted his masterpiece, a brutal 140 that featured eight sixes swung without fear or favour into the arc between square leg and long-on. The Wanderers stood unanimously to applaud at the end, as Ponting had given his team a total that not even the Indian team of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag and Rahul Dravid could threaten.

Reflecting on his career in the aftermath of his removal, Ponting said that tournament remained the peak of his experience. "To play the 2003 World Cup, to go through that undefeated and to have some success in the final was amazing," he said. "I said then that that was the best moment of my cricket life and to date it still is. Some of the things we've achieved in the one-day team since I've been in the team have been pretty remarkable."

Remarkable, and past. There was a vast contrast to be found between the Ponting of Johannesburg 2003 and Brisbane 2012, as he scratched around for 26 balls before delivering an outfield catch. In that moment he may not have known the end was coming, but he understood completely when it did a day later. While some pondered the suitability of the circumstances in which Ponting's ODI days had ended, the man himself was not one of them. No fluff, just facts.

Edited by Kanishkaa Balachandran

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here