June 21, 2013

An irrevocable loss to Australian cricket

Ricky Ponting's retirement deprives Australian cricket of an invaluable, intangible resource: 21 years of experience at state level

Forget all the waffle about an Ashes comeback, for Ricky Ponting was done with international cricket the moment he cut Robin Peterson to slip in last summer's Perth Test. No, the announcement of his full retirement this week has not robbed Australia of an Ashes saviour. It has, however, deprived Australian cricket of an invaluable, intangible resource: 21 years of experience at state level. One of the final links to a golden age of domestic batting is gone.

Of course, more than any other modern Australian cricketer, Ponting has earned the right to some family time, having been on the road more or less permanently since he was 17. Nobody can begrudge him the desire to spend his days at home with his wife and two young daughters. And having finished last summer with a Sheffield Shield title, the first piece of domestic team silverware he has ever won, Ponting has ended his state career on a high.

But boy will he be missed by a domestic cricket scene crying out for exemplars. Michael Hussey is undecided on his Western Australia future but if he goes too, it will truly be the end of an era: only Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin, Marcus North and Michael Clarke will remain active of players who began their state careers in the 1990s.

Last November, Hussey spoke of his alarm at the state of modern Sheffield Shield pitches. The green seamers, he argued, meant that young batsmen did not learn how to build a long innings, and that an 800-run season nowadays was equivalent to a 1000-run summer in the mid-1990s. That may be true. But even so, the only batsman to hit 800 Shield runs in 2012-13 was Ponting, a 38-year-old who in the first half of the summer was made to look second-rate by the South African attack.

Where were the young batsmen piling up the runs as Ponting and Hussey had in their youth? Had they been ruined by Twenty20 and the tempo associated with it? Had they been softened by youth pathways that told them they were better than they really were? Where was the tenacity that possessed men like Stuart Law, Matthew Hayden, Darren Lehmann, Jamie Siddons, Brad Hodge and Martin Love? And importantly, who will they learn it from if not the likes of Ponting and Hussey?

Notably, the best-performed of what might be called the next generation of batsmen last season was Alex Doolan. Notably, that is, because he spent much of his summer batting with Ponting. Doolan is 27, not young by cricketing standards, but those close to the Tasmania team have said it took until this season for Doolan to truly believe in his own ability. Keeping pace with Ponting in a few big partnerships certainly helped in that regard.

Ponting's insatiable appetite for runs, and the high price he placed on his wicket, were on display when he made an unbeaten 200 against New South Wales at Bellerive Oval in February. It was the highest score of the Shield season. One of his opponents in that match was Nic Maddinson, a 21-year-old batsman of immense talent who was yet to really cash in. Having seen the way Ponting compiled his innings, Maddinson went out and accumulated a career-best 154 in nearly five and a half hours.

Of course, it's not as if Ponting's presence magically made other batsmen better. Tasmania captain George Bailey admitted he became complacent coming in after the strong platforms laid by Ponting, Doolan and Mark Cosgrove last summer. But Ponting did provide a prototype, an example for young batsmen to follow, both in his impeccable preparation and his match savvy.

In Ponting's first Shield summer, Geoff Marsh made five tons, Siddons and Damien Martyn scored four, Michael Slater, Dene Hills, Paul Nobes and Ponting himself each made three. In Ponting's 21st Shield campaign, he and fellow veteran Rogers topped the century tally with three each. The pitches might be more challenging than they were in the 1990s, but runs are still there for batsmen with talent and tenacity. How many of those remain, though?

There are some promising younger batsmen coming through - Doolan, Maddinson, Joe Burns, Jordan Silk, to name a few. If Hussey follows Ponting into retirement, it will be up to them to start piling up the runs, and they'll have to learn from other thirty-somethings like Rogers and Haddin while they still can. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: there will be no more learning from Ponting. Australian cricket will be poorer for it.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here