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Sir Michael Parkinson
At the age of 12 Ricky Ponting scored four centuries in a week in a junior cricket competition in his native Tasmania. Kookaburra gave him a bat contract, which at the time might have seemed like a publicity stunt but nowadays, 23 years later, appears to have been a remarkable example of inspired judgment.
Today Ricky Ponting is regarded as one of the greatest batsmen of them all. No Australian has scored more runs in Test cricket; only two other batsmen - Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara - have scored more Test runs; only Tendulkar has scored more Test centuries. He is the third-highest scorer in one-day cricket behind Tendulkar and Sanath Jayasuriya. He has captained Australia to the highest number of consecutive wins in Test cricket, equalling Steve Waugh's run of 16. He has been on the winning side in more Test matches as player and captain than anyone else: 95 winning Test matches as a player, 44 as captain. His batting average is 55.67.
When Rodney Marsh saw him aged 15 at the Australian Cricket Academy, he said he was the best young batsman he had seen. He watched him hook a bumper from a senior fast bowler and said to his assistant: "This kid will play for Australia." Marsh said that the thing that convinced him Ponting was special was his balance, a gift defining the player's athleticism both as a batsman and fielder. One of the most graceful and satisfying sights in cricket is to see the finish of Ponting's pull shot - body leaning back, bat high in follow-through. It demonstrates that style is innate, and given only to the blessed few. If you watch Ponting field - quick feet, fast reflex - you understand what Marsh observed as remarkable two decades ago. Watch his golf swing and you would conclude this is an athlete incapable of an awkward and uncoordinated movement.
And yet, for all his gifts, the young Ponting's early years as a professional cricketer were far from seamless, and not without incident. There was the odd blip on the way from schoolboy legend in Tasmania to captain of Australia. When he was first selected for his country, aged 20, his gifts as a cricketer were soon threatened by a capacity for silly misdemeanour which came to a head in 1999, when Ponting was involved in an incident at an all-night bar in Sydney. He was punched by a security guard, causing one and a half black eyes, and the unforgettable comment that he had failed to duck a bouncer. Ponting faced the media, admitted he had a problem with drink, apologised and promised to do something about it. The media didn't buy it. One commentator called it "a sad and unconvincing performance", remarking "you could take the boy out of Tasmania but not Tassie out of the boy". Another said Ponting seemed "set on self-destruction" and likened him to George Best.
That comparison would have been legitimate only if Ponting had been an alcoholic like Best. He wasn't. He was a daft drunk with a low tolerance of alcohol, but a long way from being a soak. His choice was to balance his talent against his weakness, and decide which to give up. It sounds easy though, of course, it wasn't. But it tells you everything about Ponting's intelligence and resolve that he turned a potentially disastrous incident into a triumph. From that moment, he began to establish himself not simply as a great player but by developing into a class act as a captain and as a man.
It hasn't been a voyage on calm seas with a following wind. If you want that kind of tranquil life then don't become captain of Australia. It was John Howard, when Prime Minister of Australia, who told me that he merely held the second most important job in the land. He was only half joking.
The Australian media, gorged on a decade when their country not only dominated world cricket but redefined the way Test cricket is played, quickly sought a scapegoat when Australia twice lost the Ashes in England. Ponting's response was a single-minded dedication to the business of scoring runs and winning matches: six weeks after the Ashes he had led his team to a 6-1 oneday win over England and to the Champions Trophy. His greatest asset is to be his own man, seemingly unaffected by the boo boys, like those who jeered him during the Ashes series, to their shame. His greatest delight is in proving his critics wrong.
Before the Third Test against Pakistan in Hobart, there were those who reckoned that his batting might be showing signs of decline, that he ought to consider moving from No. 3 to a less vulnerable position. In spite of an injured and painful arm which he didn't whinge about, or even mention in his defence, he went back to his native Tasmania and scored a double-century. What made it even more praiseworthy was that, before his innings came to full and gloriousflower, the early part was uncertain and uncomfortable. But then Ponting has always been a particularly Australian mongrel, an unflinching cross between battler and maestro.
If the media sometimes have doubts about Ponting, those who play with and against him - particularly the Poms - have no reservation about his dedication to the business of winning. During the last Ashes series he was fielding close in when Matt Prior hit a ball hard into the ground; it flew up and hit Ponting in the mouth. Being a decent bloke and seeing blood on his opponent's countenance, Prior enquired:"Are you all right, mate?" - whereupon Ponting told him to mind his own business, or words to that effect. (In fact, he gave Prior an instruction using only two words, the second of which was "off ".)
On the other hand, at the conclusion of the Ashes, having had by general consent an unlucky series, he won over everyone, even those who had taunted and cursed him during the tour, with his honesty and refusal to make excuses.Off the field, Ponting has worked for five years raising funds for the Children's Cancer Institute of Australia. He was introduced by Phil Kearns, the former Wallabies rugby captain, and admits that what he saw changed his life. Nowadays he and his wife Rianna have their own charity - the Ponting Foundation - and I for one can attest from personal experience that the Pontings are formidable and persuasive fund-raisers. Indeed when Ponting says that the best part of playing cricket for Australia is that it gave him a chance to understand the problems and needs of children with cancer, you cannot doubt his sincerity.
Ricky Ponting is a true Australian working-class hero, a great cricketer and a good bloke. He is 35 and, if he heeds the whispers from the wings, ought to be planning a graceful exit. Instead he has his sights set on unfinished business. He is looking beyond the next Ashes in Australia to the series after that in England in 2013. Just before the Ashes in 2009, Ponting was asked if he'd be back again in four years. "I think I'd need a wheelchair if I'm still playing then," he said. After The Oval, with the Ashes lost, he said to himself: "I need to do this again, to get it right, to beat them on their own turf."
That is his ambition. Only a fool would bet against him.This is a man who is familiar with the road to redemption.