December 4, 2012

Unknown knowns at Limestone Exit

Ricky Ponting's departure can't have been the dream script people make it out to be, but at least he controlled his own destiny

The last two age-harried cricketers of serious note to kiss cricket off in Perth were Englishmen.

Graham Gooch called a press conference, squeezed before a net session, at the Sheraton, where he confessed to the bundle of newspapermen filing for impossible northern hemisphere deadlines that "I do look a bit miserable" but "I'm not moaning" and "there've been seasons when everything's gone for me and this hasn't been one of them". Mike Gatting's reluctance to retire was of the mid-match kind of reluctance, play having not only begun but been unravelling for two entire days when the announcement came, which tends to be a distraction for the announcer's ten team-mates, and a symbol of distress verging on desperation on the part of the announcer himself, Gatting's announcement in this instance being bookended - bowled-ended, somewhat - by a 0 (a crooked bat; the ball leaching past) the day before and an 8 (yorked off his pads) the day after.

Eighteen summers ago all that happened. In Perth.

Perth - one syllable, unprecedented for an Australian capital - where Hungry Jack's signs rise big and fresh-painted out of the million bypassed-by-highway suburbs and the west coast timezone is running about three hours behind where nine-tenths of Australians live. The afternoon wind is different. It has a name, the Doctor, although this doctor that soothes with its cool also disorients with the hooping-about effect it has on cricket balls, such that an '80s swing bowler named Kenneth MacLeay, lanky, genial, could make batsmen's ribs lurch one way and their intestines twist another till they contracted stomach ache. MacLeay breeds Angus bulls now. The sky, here, feels higher: like everything's framed different. The light is crystalline. It makes the players' shadows look blacker, the creams that they wear glow, and meanwhile the red ball's redder, an overripe and vanishing red blur for much of the day as tentative stab-cuts race for four, bottom-batted defensive pushes bring up four, because the outfield's the world's slickest, like glazed green ice. A jangling feverishness can take hold. The bowler, morally ascendant but wicketless, fumes; the batsman, guilty, yet galloping free, sneaks peeks at the Victoria Bitter scoreboard. During passages like this the cricket turns into a sort of curious morality play that you don't see at other grounds. The field was built on a swamp. The 22 yards of actual cricket pitch were in early times a "holding"-type pitch, helpful to slow spinners, something to do with the old swamp's proximity mere inches underneath and the nearby river's rise and fall. In subsequent decades it became scary for its hardness and pace, and multiplying the scariness was the abnormal steepling bounce - the pitch some otherworldly limestone trampoline in which, more eerie than scary, visiting batsmen swore they could spy their own reflection. There was also a period, later, when crusty hexagons of it would crackle and flake away under the players' footfall.

Modern cricket's made-for-TV homogeneity has rubbed off some of those distinguishing characteristics yet the sense of being someplace alien lingers.

So, Perth: no green-roofed SCG pavilions, no storied Oval gasometers for memory banks to cling to, softening the blow.

Anytime he got to three figures in his home country, and his brown eyes flickered a little and his shoulders sagged in that suddenly humble way they had, the prelude to him raising his arms and saluting a crowd, he was loveable

For Ricky Ponting to retire here - it can't be the neatly ribboned bit of dream scripting everyone's making out. He says he is no longer good enough to bat the way he batted before. "Inconsistent" scores have dogged his "last 12 or 18 months" - it's getting on for 37 months, actually, since the opening Test of the series after the 2009 Ashes, stressful times lived in the vicinity of the noose, and lived out publicly, to a soundtrack of low-level yapping from the critics interspersed with shrill barks for his head.

Thirty-seven months.

It is totally plausible that little fissures in his game were opening up back then and he should have gone. It is totally plausible that his game is in half-okay shape now and he might as well stay. And vice versa, and ad infinitum; sorry is not a batsman's hardest word. When is the hardest. Ponting's faced 72 balls this summer and five have got him out. For most of the other 67 balls he has looked relatively secure. True, in Adelaide, the place he and his wife began seriously mulling retirement, he'd lost his footing, legs spread-eagled and airborne, star jumping messily over the space where the long-gone ball bowled by Jacques Kallis had passed. But it didn't take a memory scholar to recall Melbourne, a year ago, where he fell over his own feet three times in one morning while also getting clobbered on the head. His eventual score that day, then in the five innings that followed, read: 62, 60, 134, 7, 221, 60 not out.

"I think timing-wise it's the right time," he said at his retirement press conference last Thursday.

When it's a cricketer's "right time", it's usually because desire has dimmed. But hear Ponting: "My passion and love for the game hasn't changed one bit." Eyewitness dispatches from the grounds and practice nets have without exception, until today, sketched him as industrious, painstakingly attentive, encouraging of others, positively buzzing, batting strong, getting out. Oh, Ricky - the right time, you think. Possibly Gooch and Gatting knew so. Gooch made his announcement, play started, fourth ball was a (tricky) catch flying his way at third slip, down it plopped. On their last evening as Test cricketers Gooch and Gatt scraped scarcely any runs between them. They fell within minutes of one another, so helter-skelter that the next man Fraser rushed out without a protector on, he and the other batsman Atherton conferring mid-pitch at every change of strike to yank hands down jocks and swap over the one clammy protector, the sadness that should have hung in the Perth air being overtaken by farce.

Ponting's avoided farce, in going now.

Control over his destiny is his: no Merrimans or McDonalds or itchy-trigger-fingered administrators perched in the shadows of his retirement press conference monitoring the words as they exit his mouth.

Let the second-best-behind-Bradman assertions proceed unclouded. Let Neil Harvey and Greg Chappell feel quietly peeved; let Victor Trumper roll in his grave till he rolls all the way down the big slope at Waverley Cemetery and into the ocean.

An awesome batsman, though, Ponting.

And anytime he got to three figures in his home country, and his brown eyes flickered a little and his shoulders sagged in that suddenly humble way they had, the prelude to him raising his arms and saluting a crowd, he was loveable.

In Perth, first innings, on his way to making 4, Ponting began with a block-and-scampered single, followed by a grandstand-high swivel pull from outside off stump, two trademark manoeuvres that unmistakably haven't deserted him. Second innings he unfurled a superior pull, glimpsing early - kite-hawk early - that this ball from Morne Morkel was pitching short, then snapping into position and hitting low, safe and serene, en route to a score of 8.

It confirmed something. It confirmed, maybe, nothing.

Feel for Ricky, to be leaving us now, here.

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