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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Piyush on December 9, 2012, 19:18 GMT

    Ponting was not only a motivation for the Aussie team, but often brought out the best(and sometimes the worst!) in the opposition bowlers.As good as Clarke and Hussey may become, they will be recognized as very good players who played under Ponting.He was always the most valued wicket for the opponents, easily in the same class as Lara or Kallis or Dravid or even as good as some of the past batters like Crowe,Miandad,Border etc .Most of you would disagree with me because of the belief in "Golden Ageism", believing that modern day heroes won't be as good as the heroes of the past.This belief will certainly be nothing but a faint memory once the upcoming great fast bowler barrage of Finn,Pattinson,Cummins, Junaid Khan, Boult, Woakes and others better the records of the past greats.

  • Vijay on December 9, 2012, 15:22 GMT

    U forgot Laxman, son. He retired ths year too. Another giant of a batsman. Why ignore him when the talk of retirements in 2012 comes up. He was UP there too. And he was a tremendous thorn in the Aussie side till the fateful penultimate Australia series (2012) where India were blanked mercilessly with 4-0 as scoreline. Laxman was a genuine gem against the Aussies otherwise.

  • Dummy4 on December 7, 2012, 16:32 GMT

    Inheritance of mental toughness? How about: "Ponting retires 7 years into Mike Hussey's career."

  • David on December 7, 2012, 0:09 GMT

    I think Michael Clarke is fit to stand next in line in the Chappell-Border-Waugh-Ponting legacy. G Chappell was a great batsman, but not as ruthlessly tough as the others - he could be a delicate flower at times. And Border only really toughened into Captain Grumpy after a few unsuccessful years leading his country.

  • David on December 6, 2012, 23:15 GMT

    I have a theory that the Australian "toughness" described in this article is the result of the very different way in which Australian cricketers are developed compared with elsewhere. In many other countries (SA, SL, etc), when they talk about young cricketers, one of the first things mentioned is which school they went to. In Australia, the school system by and large makes zero contribution to a cricketer's development ... they learn their cricket through their local club.

    In other words, whereas in other countries youngsters learn their craft (esp. the mental side) alongside their peers, in Australia they learn it alongside their elders: 15 year-olds are learning to approach cricket like 30 year-olds, not like other 15 year-olds.

  • Dummy4 on December 6, 2012, 20:19 GMT

    The most fearless Cricketer ever... who could send shivers down ur spines!!! Will miss yaa Ricky :(

  • mo on December 6, 2012, 18:31 GMT

    @ electric_loco_WAP4: ponting better than kallis?!? ...and by implication of your non-mention, better than sachin too?!? both are ridiculous assertions!

    ponting was a phenomenal ODI batsman, probably the best after viv (despite others like sachin having better ODI records), but as a test batter, he was not ***in the same league*** as the redoubtable kallis, sachin and lara - none of whom had any weakness against pace or spin, or against any one country. kallis, by the way, is probably the best batter of the three without even considering his bowling effort!!!

    i can't gloss over the fact that ponting scored a mere 26 on average in 14 tests (25 innings) in IND with but one ton, a veritable spin-track bunny if i ever saw one, especially (but not only) in 2001 when bhajji pwned him! one ton in 25 innings in IND! i'm tiring of the "second best oz batter after bradman" hyperbolic assessment! not in test cricket, ponting certainly wasn't!!!

  • duncan on December 6, 2012, 17:20 GMT

    An article that sounds clever, makes massive assumptions then finishes with a lazy conclusion. 'Bloodline' of Australian batsmen? Has inbreeding become so rampant? Players multi-formatting? So what? Who upped the run rate in Test cricket to heap pressure on the the opposition long before T20 came along, and, in doing so, possibly predicted and precipitated it? And what is a batsman if not 'self-reliant'? Is Michael Clarke, as others have pointed out, not in the same mould? In which case, there's your overlap of never-say-die Aussie Captains to rebuild the team around. And if 'culture' is responsible for producing great players, then what has changed in this country to revivify our game? The end of a golden era of batsmen? Where have we heard that before? And another baseball quote? Come on, Ed. How about NFL or NHL coaches for a change? We know you studied the game, but change the record. This is all style and no substance. There's a difference between sounding clever and being clever.

  • Rajaram on December 6, 2012, 17:13 GMT

    Ponting's belief in his own abilities AND his Team-mates is what made him so tough.

  • Mark on December 6, 2012, 16:10 GMT

    Excellent article. Describes who Ricky Ponting was as a champion cricketer and highly professional sportsman searching for perfection with a strong work ethic in a champion Australian team from the 1990s. Yes with Ricky Ponting's retirement, not just a great era of Australian cricket comes to a close from the 1990s. But maybe the end of an era in the history of cricket period. No wonder Micheal Clarke wept when Ricky Ponting retired. With him goes a memorable golden era of Australian cricket riding into the sunset. I who remember the aussies of the 1990s well, can't believe that era is now over.

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