At the Close of Play October 31, 2013

Ponting's reckoning

The former Australia captain's biography is a doorstop that offers a detailed and honest account of his career

Much as Ricky Ponting's commanding presence at No. 3 went a long way towards dictating the fortunes of the Australian team for a decade, a lot is riding on the success of his autobiography. For the publishing and bookselling industries, At the Close of Play is a commodity not dissimilar to the Australian cricket broadcast rights that channels Nine and Ten recently paid well over the odds to secure: a rare "sure thing" in a marketplace increasingly fragmented and fickle. Ponting received a handsome advance for his life story, leaving his publishers at Harper Collins to hope for a windfall akin to those reaped by the tomes of Steve Waugh and John Howard.

Something else is at stake across the 700 pages also, a matter weighty enough for Ponting to be articulating at some length on his current promotional tour around the country. Honesty is one of Ponting's bywords, even occupying its own segment in the book, and he sees no point in maintaining a smooth veneer now after being kept silent in the past by the responsibilities of the office. His account of an era that spanned success, decline and fall is a reckoning for numerous figures in the game at home and overseas, and the more pointed passages have been scooped up eagerly by a media hungrier for headlines than insights.

Spotfires have broken out around previously dormant issues like Monkeygate, Cricket Australia's planning for the future, and most prominently the perceived past transgressions of the national captain, Michael Clarke. Ponting's intention was less to create tensions than alleviate them, shoving skeletons out of the closet to make room for something more constructive.

As he said this week of Mark Taylor's observation that his captaincy descendant might have been more demure: "I was actually a little bit offended Mark would come out and say something like that - that I would break what happens in the sanctuary of the Australian change room. I'm not out doing things like that to sell books. Australian cricket is dear to me, it's been my life for 20-odd years. If anything, what I've had to say will hopefully help everyone."

Seldom does a page of the book go by without a piece of information not previously known or an opinion keenly expressed, via the dual guiding hands of his writing collaborators Geoff Armstrong (who also worked on Ponting's less enlightening diaries) and Peter Lalor. If there is anything Clarke, Taylor, James Sutherland and others may feel aggrieved by, it is the timing of this truth-telling, a few weeks before the start of an Ashes series. But then sales imperatives have dictated the timing of At the Close of Play's release, and nothing reflects the power of commercial expedience more than cricket's 2013 schedule.

So aside from the jousting around the book's release, what exactly has Ponting bequeathed us? It is a long and detailed account, though the coverage is not always even. Some tours, like 2012 in the West Indies, are missing completely, and others receive scant attention. This is never more evident than in the passages addressing the 2009 Ashes tour, a pivot point for Australian cricket and for Ponting - the moment he went from Ashes holder to loser, the 5-0 bloodsport of 2006-07 expunged by an increasingly methodical and confident England. The final day of Cardiff is barely touched, while the hotly debated call to leave out Nathan Hauritz on a turning pitch at The Oval is talked away as the result of a heel injury.

Such lapses seem as much a side effect of covering previously diarised ground a second time as an unwillingness to observe and introspect, and also a symptom of the book's sheer sweep. When Ponting began with Mowbray, Tasmania and then Australia, the national team dressing room was populated by the likes of Taylor, the Waughs, Craig McDermott and David Boon. Seventeen years later, Ponting had fought alongside no fewer than 82 other players for Australia. It is a dizzying figure, made more so by the thought that as captain he tried to get to know each one, the better to find out how he could draw out their best.

If the story sags a little through the middle, its most bracing passages arrive early. The depiction of Ponting's cricket-obsessed youth on the working-class side of Launceston, his days at the Academy in Adelaide (crashing a car with Shane Warne no less), and the swapping of a Tasmania cap for his baggy green is a tale to be cherished. His binge- drinking phase is covered unstintingly, as is a dalliance with a bookmaker at the greyhound track in 1997 that could so easily have resulted in his entrapment and corruption. Equally instructive is Ponting's reflection that many momentous events passed him by as he struggled for traction in the team, something worth keeping in mind while critiquing today's young Australian cricketers in a time of far less confident certainty than Ponting enjoyed.

Some of Ponting's observations speak to a few of his public attributes and foibles. When he writes of his penchant for fiery debates on sport with his father, it offers a glimpse of the genesis of a feisty pitch-side manner that tended to get him into trouble with umpires. When he admits he struggled to isolate the reasons why Taylor was considered such an outstanding captain, Ponting unwittingly hints at the sorts of qualities missing from his own leadership. It also becomes clear that criticism of his consultative style and occasionally leaden tactics wounded him much more than he let on at the time.

Ponting's intention was less to create tensions than alleviate them, shoving skeletons out of the closet to make room for something more constructive

Similarly affecting is the space devoted to his relationship, marriage and children with Rianna, a companion who helped Ponting see beyond the game and helped enhance his sense of growth and self-improvement after the bumpier days of his youth. He writes of her in a way that doesn't recall cricketing biography quite so much as "Uptown Girl", with the equally endearing revelation that her limited knowledge of cricket ensured he could leave the baggage of the game and the team at their front door.

Of course there is plenty about batting also, as befits the Australian most likely to be mentioned in conversations alongside the likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. Ponting's struggles with offspin were evident as early as his first-class debut at Adelaide Oval, when Tim May tied him in the kinds of knots Harbhajan Singh would later delight in. Ponting relates how Mohammad Azharuddin helped him establish a working method for the spinning ball on the subcontinent, and for that reason names a century on the first day of the 2008 Test series, in Bangalore, as one of his proudest.

The innings coincided with the time Ponting began to feel the start of a slow but inexorable fade from his peak as a batsman and leader to the point when, five years later, he sat in his Adelaide hotel room during the second Test against South Africa and confided to Rianna: "I'm not sure I can do this anymore." Ponting's account of his final months, weeks and days in the team is a near masterpiece of how doubt can infiltrate even the steeliest mind, hastening the muddled thoughts and actions that had him out in unseemly fashion in both innings of a Test Australia should have won.

A sapping draw set the scene for a final match ending with rich tributes for the retiring hero, but also a clear reminder that things were not what they used to be: at the WACA ground it was South Africa's cricketers who played with the brio and trust that had been a hallmark of Ponting's best years. Though he used the visitors' performance in the match as the example for the team to follow in his farewell dressing-room address, the man who had set the highest bar was Ponting himself. Whatever their current reservations about his frankness, it can only be hoped the great and good of Australian cricket will come to appreciate At the Close of Play for telling how he did so.

At the Close of Play
Ricky Ponting
Harper Collins
720 pages, A$49.99

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