December 6, 2012

What made Ponting so tough?

His talent and ambition were polished and hardened by Australia's competitive cricket culture, and during his peak he was his team's biggest wicket

The retirement of Ricky Ponting has impoverished two great cricketing traditions. The first is the bloodline of resilient Aussie batsmen. The second is the dwindling number of international cricketers who would describe themselves first and foremost as Test players.

Ponting was a classic example of one in a timeless tradition of gutsy, fearless and, above all, self-reliant batsmen. The modern Australian team has always boasted at least one true champion batsman, an unbroken dynasty of relentless run-getters. Greg Chappell (7110 Test runs) retired five years into Allan Border's career, Border (11,174) retired nine years into Steve Waugh's, and Waugh (10,927) retired nine years into the career of Ponting. That is not to say there weren't other batsmen of the highest class too. But the central point is that Australia has never had to rebuild a team without an iron man at the core of the side.

How are champions made? It is now fashionable to talk about "pathways to excellence", as though a cricketer is an inorganic object on a production-line conveyor belt. In fact, it is culture - not coaches or academies - that leaves the strongest imprint on great players. Ponting's natural talent and ambition were polished and hardened by the highly competitive culture within Australian cricket - in club cricket, at state level, and then within the Test team itself.

One of the things that motivated these men was the prospect of winning the respect of their peers and predecessors. That is how a strong sporting culture inspires the present generation. Batting for Australia was not taken lightly. I've heard a few recent Australian Test players say, "AB [Border] would have killed me if I'd done that." The aspiration of being the alpha dog was even more serious. Achieving the status of "biggest Australian wicket" was probably an even harder challenge than overcoming Donald, Walsh and Murali.

Ponting achieved it and more. His 71 international centuries straddled two very different eras, as the all-conquering XIs of Taylor and Waugh gave way to today's more moderate squad. Arguably Ponting's most remarkable achievement was the relentless way he played when Australia were at the top of their game. A lesser player would have showed traces of boredom or ironic detachment. Not Ponting. He never lost that cussed, hungry look, as though he had a score to settle with the rest of the world. He lived up to my favourite sporting aphorism, from Joe DiMaggio, the New York Yankees icon. Asked why he always tried so hard, despite having already achieved everything there was to achieve in baseball, DiMaggio shot back: "Because there is someone in this ballpark watching me for the first time, and there is someone here watching me for the last time. I owe it to both of them to give of my best." It was the same with Ponting. The young boy watching his first day of Test cricket, the old man who was watching one final session before time was called: both could guarantee they would get to see the full Ponting experience.

He was a handsome player to watch. That was always besides the point. The central issue was getting the job done

There would be the same circumspect prodding of the pitch to pat down imaginary unevenness; the same greeting to his batting partner: "Good loud calls, mate"; the same urgent footwork, even when he left the ball outside off stump, as though he could make a statement of intent even when he wasn't playing a shot; the same transfer of weight, pushing right forward - no one was quick enough to stop him striding forward - and the same willingness to rock back to hook and pull. Ponting, as every player does, had spells of good and bad form. But he was never knocked off his core mentality: "I value my wicket dearly, but I am here to score runs - and briskly."

Which brings us to the second great tradition. Though Ponting was a formidable one-day player, you sense that he rated Test cricket as the ultimate gauge of a cricketer. Had his career begun a decade later than it did, no doubt he would also have developed into a great T20 player. But perhaps it's better that didn't happen. For all its positive influences, T20 has one central problem: it necessarily demands that batsmen get used to getting out cheaply and often. Can't they just adapt from one form of the game to the next? In principle, yes. But in practice it is much harder. In T20, you have to bat with a degree of lightness, a splash of devil-may-care. But once you've adopted that mindset in one form of the game, a tiny residue of indifference always remains elsewhere. No doubt Ponting would have mastered T20, but had he done so, would he have become such an exponent of the definitive Test match innings? I have written for this website that T20 will not necessarily harm the development of technique. But it teaches a different mental approach to batting, from the very beginning.

It has been a year of farewells for Test-match icons. First Rahul Dravid, then Ponting, perhaps with Sachin Tendulkar to follow soon. The comparison between Ponting and Dravid shows the fascinating influence of different cultures in the production of Test cricketers. Dravid was a pure classical batsman, a silky technician. If you looked carefully enough, you could detect a hint of the old English coaching manual beneath the subcontinental touch and fluidity. Not so with Ponting. He was an Aussie pragmatist through and through. Though he was a handsome player to watch. That was always besides the point. The central issue was getting the job done.

At the height of Ponting's career, the phrase "mental toughness" followed the Australian team around the world. What was it? How could it be copied or taught? As is always the case with abstract expressions, those who embodied it most did not always understand it best. How could they? What made Ponting so tough? It was the infinitely subtle interplay of character, culture, and experience, each reinforcing the other.

Ponting's retirement feels like the end of an era as Test cricket, sadly, inches another step away from centre stage.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is out now. His Twitter feed is here