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At the Close of Play

Ponting's reckoning

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

Daniel Brettig

October 31, 2013

Comments: 12 | Text size: A | A

Cover of <i>At the Close of Play</i> by Ricky Ponting, 2013

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

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Posted by popcorn on (November 2, 2013, 5:29 GMT)

I have bought a signed copy - it is definitely a Watershed book.

Posted by rogerwooleysbeard on (November 1, 2013, 11:31 GMT)

Having known the family and played footy with Ricky as kids I can assure you that what he has achieved is amazing. What a lot of people (particularly on the Subcontinent) don't understand with Ricky (and indeed with a lot of Australians)is how combative our sport is played in general. Our footy is played with venom where you would literally try to hurt as much as possible your opponent in every contest. Then you go to work or school with them the next day. Sledging and physical contests occur and then afterwards you have a beer. Ricky went to a school that more kids would graduate to gaol than work, let alone University. So its no wonder there was a degree of fight in the Punter!

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 9:52 GMT)

I don't think tht too much shud be read in2 the whole ponting and clarke issue, bcos the guys are clearly buddies and will sort out whatever differences and we will be left trying to take sides, so let's just leave it 2 them. There is no doubt in my mind tht he was great. Just because of a few bad comments on this page and a few detractors elsewhere doesn't mean he will suddenly be scratched off the History books. The fact that Lara,Kallis and Tendulkar are regarded as the greatest 2 hav played the game and that Ponting is right up there with them, says tht he is also great, even people may not want to agree with that. As far as the timing of the book is concerned, of course it's commercial. This is the best time to release a book about an Australian changing room and great former captain, because this is the time when everyone wil be questioning their captaincy and their change room, and so forth

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 6:16 GMT)

Great cricketer! I admired him,he as one of the greatest to play this distinguished game.My only disappointment is his recent stumble with the Tendulkar / Harbajan and Symonds issue.It was uncalled for,this pettiness.At the end of the day, no effort will diminished the luminosity of SR Tendulkar.

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 4:54 GMT)

He's got a story to tell. They are professionals, commercialism withthe timing of the publication ? Timing is everything! How sweet his timing was(is)!

Posted by akpy on (November 1, 2013, 3:24 GMT)

Ok..Ponting and honesty....hmmm. Captaining that Australian team he had needed timing, he was in the right place at the right time. Look at his record once they went (or Australia's)

Posted by   on (November 1, 2013, 0:11 GMT)

Ponting had two personalities, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The Dr, Jekyll was the batsman and Mr. Hyde the captain. Mr. Hyde stretched the limits of captaincy and often stepped over the line. As competitive as Ponting was, he could never curb his enthusiasm. His character showed up when he could have taken a deep breath and worked things with Kumble in that infamous Test Match in Sydney. Prior to that Test match there was also a declaration that the fielder's word should taken as the truth. And we all know how that worked. Ponting also did not know how to rein in a certain Mr. Symonds and during his tenure many lumineries, such as Warne, Gilchrist, Martin retired for unspecified reasons. It is good to be tough as nails when you are the captain but you also need to hold counsel with your senior mates. As for Dr Jekyll, I cannot find one fault. He gave his sweat and blood for Australia and nothing more can be asked/expected. But a biography during Ashes reeks of money.

Posted by   on (October 31, 2013, 19:36 GMT)

I Just have one thing to say. If one so called "great" does not touch upon some very important periods of his life, then there is nothing "honest" in this book. For me , its is an other tale of fiction

Posted by perl57 on (October 31, 2013, 18:17 GMT)

Ponting and Honesty are antonyms not synonyms. Arrogant, extremely lucky and an amazing batsman who lived and held many awards because of the talent of his team mates. His captaincy can at best be termed lucky because he had McGrath, Gilles, Lee, Warney in bowling and Gilly, Haydos, Symonds and others in batting. With that kind of team even Sachin Tendulkar can be a great captain.

Posted by VerbosityAbridged on (October 31, 2013, 17:18 GMT)

Thanks. Now I don't have to wade through 699 pages of to confirm what I suspected - that apart from the details of his youth and early cricketing life, the book isn't worth reading.

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Daniel BrettigClose
Daniel Brettig Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel's chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth - a rare Australian victory that summer.

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