February 23, 2012

That man's on the TV again

Television defines Ricky Ponting, but the more we see him on it, the less we know

Ricky Ponting called a press conference on Tuesday because he wanted a "bit of closure". Others seeking closure might take to drink or to walking the dog round and round the block. To us a press conference seems weird.

It's normal to someone living the non-normal life of extreme celebrity. Michael Jackson signed his first Steeltown Records deal aged nine. Ponting struck his first Kookaburra bat contract at 12. Don't stop 'til you get enough has become a mantra-verging-on-crusade for Ponting, now 37. For half those years the big and little developments in his life and career have been accompanied by press conferences.

Get picked in the team. Hold a press conference. Get drunk and king-hit in the Bourbon & Beefsteak Bar and endanger spot in the team. Hold a press conference. So after Monday, when he was dropped from the one-day side, Tuesday's press conference felt like second nature. No opening statement began proceedings. Instead a journalist, Ken from Channel 9, was asked to ask a question. Ponting said he holds no bitterness and he absolutely understands the selectors' viewpoint and he's not retiring. "I still don't see a finish line." Seventeen minutes of this flew by before another journalist, Jim from Channel 7, said: so why hold a press conference? Ponting wanted people to know his feelings and plans, he explained. And he wanted that "bit of closure".

Earlier it had occurred to him, perhaps in front of the mirror - for he arrived fresh-shaved, his hair waxed (or gelled) slick, wearing a white shirt (white makes his sun-browned arms and face glow handsome) buttoned high - that anticlimax lay in store and some press conference-goers and watchers might be miffed. After all, four TV channels were going live to air with this presser. By the time he mentioned his "bit of closure", two of the more ratings-obsessed channels - miffed, as envisaged - had already broken back to regular programming.

That it took 17 minutes for a journalist to voice the blowfly-in-our-faces question - why have you asked us here? - might seem odd. It isn't. Cricket press conferences are exercises in loosely structured idiocy. Non-specialist reporters do a lot of the asking. Their questions come wrapped in cliché and are faithful approximations of the pre-hatched "angles" devised by or for the numpties back in the office. More artful writers keep mouths mostly shut and their own angles private. Often they skip the press conference. Or they'll go to discern a game's trajectory - something (and nothing) can be gained from peering at Ponting's grizzled features on day one, then again on the third evening - or to spy a glimmer of the human behind the cricketer. The players' managers are awake to this. They school their stars to rebut cliché with cliché. A walls-closing-in anteroom of anti-thinking - that's what we're left squirming in.

It is possible Ponting likes these press conferences. Just as plausibly, he doesn't know enough to know if he likes them or not, because he's known nothing else.

After the September 11 attacks and killings of 2001, American historian Edward Linenthal wrote: "I never, ever will use the word 'closure' again, except to talk about it in angry ways, because there is no such thing. I think it's a horrific pop-psychology term. There are events to be endured, not resolved…"

It is possible Ponting likes these press conferences. Just as plausibly, he doesn't know enough to know if he likes them or not, because he's known nothing else

Will Ponting be feeling closure today? Quite likely: yes. A pro sportsman, especially a batsman, for whom one mistake and you're dust is the law, strains to cotton-wool anxieties, muffle them, keep himself uncluttered. Maybe it is not "closure" Ponting is experiencing - more, "suspended remorse". It might catch up with him one day. When Ponting was 14 and in Launceston, radio commentator Neville Oliver told a local Examiner reporter he knew of this super-powered 14-year-old - "but don't write anything about him yet, it's too much pressure". The real pressure might hit Ponting the day that he no longer can call press conferences.

For now, TV is what he knows and TV is how we know him. Our children's children will learn of Ponting the same way, via internet footage. Once, cricket-doting boys read of men like Trumper's faraway deeds in long-ago books. Where the sentences stopped, imagination kicked in. Modern cricket publishing being what it is, there are ten Ponting books and none sketch stirring word pictures. But there is YouTube.

No one knows which way internet copyright restrictions will lead us. Space, though, is unlimited. The general drift seems clear: more, more, more.

To be found on YouTube are two Ponting moments that define him for me: young and goateed, at the Gabba, hooking Walsh and Ambrose off his rib cage; then older, in Cardiff, sticking with his spinner Hauritz and part-timer North in a sun-sinking half-hour that blew the 2009 Ashes. They define him because they are defining. Here is the batsman he would become, and the captain he painfully was.

But YouTube has no section marked "defining", and none marked "tat", just a flickering haze of Ponting sixes and fours and bats raised at crowds and kisses blown to Rianna. If we see a boat-builder's boats sail smoothly cross choppy seas, do we kid ourselves we know the boat-builder?

The more our eyes have to look at, the less we use imagination, and the littler it is that we know.

We don't know Ricky, any more than he knows us, the millions he invited to sit in on his psychologist's appointment last Tuesday.

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