July 27, 2013

The last time I saw Ricky bat

Trying to catch one of his final innings in the game became a matter of urgency, of getting to say a proper goodbye

From the moment of his international retirement in Perth last year, I'd always planned to see Ricky Ponting bat in the flesh one final time. I wasn't sure where or when this would be, but it would certainly happen, either for Tasmania, Hobart Hurricanes or Surrey: plenty of matches remained. A BBL date in Sydney took place with Ponting absent injured, cutting out one chance. A Sheffield Shield final elapsed without the opportunity to visit in person as it clashed with an India Test, dashing another. Slowly, the window was narrowed.

Early on in my visit to England for the Ashes, Ponting announced that he would draw his career to a close before the start of the next Australian season, adding further urgency to the commitment. Not to worry, I thought, there were ample games to go. But the demands of the Ashes precluded a visit to see him play for Surrey, including his last first-class innings of an unbeaten 169, and as the Caribbean Premier League ticked near, the chance of being there for that final glimpse diminished.

But all the while I had in mind two T20 fixtures at Lord's and The Oval in the last week of July, as I'm sure many others did. In the circumstances, it seemed like the right way to bid Ponting farewell. He was not taking part in the Ashes, sure, and at that moment most members of the Australian team he had represented for 16 years would not be in London but in Sussex, slogging through a tour match and trying to conjure some inspiration for the next three Tests against England.

So at the height of the English summer, in front of packed crowds, Ponting would sign off with a flourish and a last volley of strokes. He would walk to the wicket accompanied by rich applause, and perhaps the odd bit of well-lagered abuse from those wishing to revisit the verbal barbs of 2005 or 2009. A marking of the guard, a glance around the field, and a resumption of that familiar crouch at the batting crease would follow.

One last time I would see bowlers strain that little extra amount to find a way past Ponting's bat. A redoubled effort in the presence of batting greatness, a chance to tell the grandchildren that they had got the man out, even if at the age of 38, in a racy format far removed from the five-day game where he made his name. One last time fielders would tense for opportunities, perhaps at slip from an early nick, perhaps later on at midwicket or mid-on from a slightly miscued pull shot. And the fielders in the ring would think themselves a chance of sneaking a run-out, per Pratt, per Flintoff.

Whatever chances Ponting would offer, he would also provide a reminder of what made him so rare a batting talent. Maybe it would be with straight drives off the front foot, of the kind he delighted in scorching past the ankles of a fast bowler. Perhaps it would be with the squarer punches off the back, played with a level of certainty and consistency that few batsmen of any era have managed. Almost certainly it would feature a few rasping pull shots, of the kind that for so long turned the bouncer, a pace bowler's most common intimidatory resource, into the friendliest ball Ponting could possibly receive.

Before and after the match, it would have been possible to glimpse the drive that made Ponting such an exemplar of how to pursue victories. His nets and warm-ups would be precise and demanding, never once mailed in from an absent mind

When it came time for Surrey to take the field, Ponting would then offer one final masterclass in the versatility, agility and unstinting alertness of perhaps the finest all-round fielder Australia has produced. Impassable on both sides, with a knack for hitting the stumps and an even better one for catching almost everything that went near him, it was in the field that Ponting never once lost his best touch, even if the sharpness of his batting began to trail off in later years. Rod Marsh was known to exclaim "just look at him" during a Shield match last summer, when comparing Ponting with those Australian cricketers destined to follow but never better him.

Before and after the match, it would have been possible to glimpse the drive that made Ponting such an exemplar of how to pursue victories. His nets and warm-ups would be precise and demanding, never once mailed in from an absent mind. No one has played in more victorious Test matches than Ponting, and as the game drifts further towards a T20-lined future, no one is likely to pass him. His desire to win always outstripped his desire for personal gain. It is one of many qualities so evident in Ponting that Australian cricket is in dire need of rediscovering.

As the Surrey allrounder Gareth Batty observed recently in the Evening Standard of Ponting's last day as a first-class cricketer: "Many players would have been happy to have done what Ricky did in his final innings, regardless of the result of the game. But he still came into the changing room after the game pretty downbeat that we never got an opportunity to win. He genuinely meant it, too. In my opinion, he's the best Australian batsman of his generation, one of the top two or three in the world at that time, yet still his sole focus was: 'We need to win a game of cricket. That's the only thing that matters.' When you see that will to win from a player, it's phenomenal."

That downbeat expression would be visible from the Oval balcony on the night I came to see him. A groin strain ruled him out of this match against Kent, as it had the visit to Lord's and Middlesex the previous night. All those final memories of Ponting had to be remembered from other days, not cherished on this one. As the evening crept on, it dawned on me that Ponting's final innings in England took place eight days ago, at The Oval. He made 3 for Surrey in a loss to Hampshire. I wasn't there, and nor were many who had hoped to see him bat one last time. Sometimes you don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here