November 30, 2012

The eternal battler

All top cricketers are united by their refusal to give up. Ricky Ponting had that quality in spades, and plenty besides

Ricky Ponting's extraordinary career will be remembered for many reasons. The history books, though, will recognise him as the most successful cricketer to have ever played this game. Ricky leaves international cricket with a load of runs and a Bradmanesque record: 100 Test victories and three World Cups, two as captain. It is a statistic any cricketer from any age would die for.

He was one of the best batsmen in the game (with the greatest cracking pull shot I have ever seen), and among the finest fielders going (brilliant all-round, whether close in, at silly point, point, or in the slips). That apart, I will always think of Ricky as a competitor, a fighter who never gave up, and a guy with a side to his personality that was not often seen: an upright, conscientious man, one with a mature understanding of the big picture. It shows in the timing of his retirement, and I am glad that he will be able to finish off in style.

For a long time, we didn't know each other well, and I admit I was surprised when I saw this other side of him, but I am glad I did eventually. At the end of the 2008 Test series against Australia, when I was going through a rough patch, he took me aside and said, "Look, I've been following your batting through the series and I know you're struggling for runs, and people are after your blood, but I want to tell you, I still think you're playing well. Hang in there." Coming from someone who was seen as a tough guy, someone we Indians had had so many skirmishes with, this was a revelation. We didn't know each other well but he took the trouble to talk to me and offer those words of comfort.

Our bats often provided a topic of conversation - they came from the same manufacturer in Meerut. Once, I asked him to give me one of his bats, signed. He had to take it to Meerut to get a similar one made, but he said he would make sure I got it, and called and checked more than once to make sure it was delivered. Not quite the sort of behaviour most would associate with Ricky Ponting perhaps. In fact, if you ask me what he was like when I was batting, apart from the usual chatter, I can't remember being sledged by him either.

In his long career, Ricky grew to become a fine leader and statesman. Tactically he may not have been as celebrated a captain as the brilliant Mark Taylor, for instance, but he was very aware of his position in the sport and where and what he was.

It was a marked progress from his early days. I remember seeing him after we won the Kolkata Test of 1998, to go 2-0 up on Taylor's side in the series. He had clearly shown that he was one of Australia's most outstanding talents, but that night in Kolkata he was not in the best state, and I wondered if he was going to waste his gifts.

Later I grew to admire how he fronted up a lot about his own failures. He was honest with the media and also spoke freely about issues in world cricket that he had an opinion on.

Ricky had a complex relationship with India; love-hate even. He wasn't successful touring India, where he was frequently measured against Sachin. Maybe because of who he was and how direct he could appear to be in speech and action, somehow he didn't quite warm the hearts of Indians like Steve Waugh did. I don't know if he came to embrace India off the field. What I do know is that guys who played alongside him at Kolkata Knight Riders were effusive about his role as a mentor and leader. To the younger guys, his work ethic was astonishing, and he provided an example of professionalism, ever ready to get involved, both as friend and mentor.

The last few years must have been tough for Ricky, not merely because of the dip in his own form: he was also the last man standing from an Australian era of excellence and domination. He grew up amid greatness, in the line of players like Taylor, David Boon, Waugh, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. He played with the legends. When Australia began to slip, it must have been hard to come to terms with. He chose to fight through it and be the elder statesman in a young team.

That core of your nature, to find a way, never leaves you. Which is why retirement is difficult - because your nature doesn't allow you to give up the game. You end up battling yourself and it is a huge fight

I remember messaging him after Australia lost the Ashes to tell him to hang in there and take some time away from cricket to clear his mind. What he had said to me a while ago had helped me and I wanted to show my support. Us No. 3s must look out for each other, I guess!

The way he battled on in the last few years of his career is to be admired. A quality inherent in every top-flight cricketer is that they do not give up. You do not want to give up; you are successful because you will not back off. That is why you play; that is why Ricky Ponting played. He didn't carry surrender in his kit bag.

Throughout his career he answered the questions thrown at his batting, found his way around problems, found answers. That core of your nature, to find a way, never leaves you. Which is why retirement is difficult - because your nature doesn't allow you to give up the game. You end up battling yourself and it is a huge fight. It is frustrating, and I have been through some of it myself.

With all top-class players, what starts to go, I think, is not the runs, but the inevitability of being able to score those runs, the assurance of performance. When we went to Australia in 2003-04, there was an inevitability to Ponting scoring runs, and sure enough, he got two double-centuries in the series. It was understood that this guy was going to make us pay.

By the time we played him in 2012, that inevitability had gone, that sense of the expected. It's not that they can't score or that they won't, but the certainty in their batting goes. You know you can fight for some time, like Ricky did, because you don't want to let other people down, but I think he did realise in the end that he doesn't want to play sport like that. Cricket will be the poorer without him but retirements are like the runs made by the great players - inevitable.

You will miss it for a bit, Ricky, but there's a plus side. Like we always believed, the commentary box is a much, much easier place to be.

Rahul Dravid scored over 23,000 international runs for India between 1996 and 2012

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