Ricky Ponting is certainly the best Australian batsman I have seen since Greg Chappell, and is quite possibly the best since Sir Donald Bradman. Arguments will rage over his precise station in the pantheon of Australian batsmen, but if Bradman is Jupiter, then Ponting could easily sit at his right hand side. The fact he belongs in the argument at all speaks volumes of his greatness.
Sir Neville Cardus once described Keith Miller as an "Australian in excelsis". The appearance. The attitude. The easy, laconic swagger. Yesterday at the WACA, as Australia stared defeat in the face, the curtain came down on the career of the man who defined recent Australian cricket. The last link to the truly great sides of the 1990s and early 2000s was severed as Ponting edged an attempted cut from Robin Peterson to Jacques Kallis at slip and walked off the international arena for the last time, a fleeting eight runs to his name. The reception he received from the crowd on his entry and exit from the arena was appropriately rapturous, but you sense the reaction from his opponents would have pleased Ponting even more - respectful, good-natured and effusive. Ever the professional, he would truly have appreciated that he had the utmost respect of his opponents to the very end.
A child prodigy, Ponting came to First Class cricket in his teens, and was a member of the 1995 Frank Worrell Trophy squad which took the mantle of world's best team from the West Indies. He was there during the ascendancy and was no small part of the dominance; there when the team slid well down the rankings after the other greats retired, and in his last series as the team rebuilt, he was there as it played for the number one spot again.
Saturation coverage of all formats the world over means fans now come to know cricketers as never before. Ponting was the first great Australian cricketer to play his entire career in the 24/7, world wide TV era, where every series is available to be watched by fans home and away. It might be for this reason that we somehow feel we know him better than other greats who came before. Ponting's predecessor as captain, Steve Waugh, was not given to overt displays of emotion - you wondered whether you really knew him. Ponting was the opposite. The triumphs and disasters were written on his countenance for all to see. It wasn't so much that he was content to show his emotions; it was that he couldn't help but show them. It made him all the more human. To supporters, it endeared him; while those who disliked him never had to wonder when the time for schadenfreude was. We watched him grow from an impetuous youth to become for several years the world's best player; then as twilight descended he displayed fragility in his game not seen before. From the get-go, here was a batsman.
Australian cricket owes Ricky Ponting a great deal. It is one thing to be part of a great side then lead it. It is quite another to stay on and try to rebuild that team once the players which made it great have retired. You could sense in the later years of his captaincy a frustration at the way the team was heading. The bowlers were not able to produce the consistency of McGrath and Warne, and the batsmen lacked the flint-hard character and innate ability of Hayden, Langer, Waugh and Ponting himself. At times the frustration boiled over, such as his gesture to England coach Duncan Fletcher after being run out by the over-used substitute fielder Gary Pratt in 2005. Likewise, there were times when Ponting's unbridled competitiveness contributed to fractious relations between Australia and its opponents, such as the 2007-2008 tour by India. This was a tough time for Australian cricket, as the attitude of an all-conquering side was questioned by its own journalists and public. As leader, Ponting bore the brunt of the criticism surrounding the manner in which the side played. Those leading the charge in the media had been curiously silent when their former County team mate and Ponting's predecessor had presided over a consistent regimen of far worse on-field behaviour than that exhibited by the hosts in the Sydney Test of 2008. Nonetheless, the series marked the beginning of the end of Australia's dominance, and 12 months later South Africa inflicted the first home series defeat on Australia since 1993. The fact the side immediately returned fire and beat the Proteas away - a feat Ponting regards as his greatest as captain - could not hide the fact the team was not the force it once was, as evidenced by back-to-back Ashes losses, both away and then at home.
When Ponting gave up the captaincy in favour of Michael Clarke, many were surprised he played on: it has not been the Australian way. Some suggested it was to continue to assist in the rebuilding of the team, but I take the view the real reason is the simplest one: he loved playing. For so attacking a batsman, his captaincy sometimes attracted criticism for lack of aggression and imagination, particularly during the 2005 Ashes series. Many of his predecessors took great delight in suggesting from the commentary box that Ponting was not aggressive or astute enough in his field settings or bowling changes, forgetting their own timidity when faced with an onslaught from a dominant opponent or the fact they had possessed attacks far stronger than those which he had to command later in his career.
In any event, after resigning the captaincy Ponting seemed to enjoy his cricket like a callow youth once more. The scowl was largely replaced by the cheeky grin which had impishly tortured most of the world's bowlers over the previous decade and a half. It reminded us that he wasn't always the hard edged captain and that the sheer joy of playing the game still burned brightly. That he seemed happy to be playing right to the end, despite the struggles with his own form, reminded us of the simple joy he took from playing the game he so loved, and which gave him so much.
As with all great players, there are myriad statistics one could quote in paying tribute to Ponting. After all, you don't play 168 Test matches unless you have a few things going for you. But never mind the numbers for now. There are accumulators and there are entertainers. Only the greats are both.
Ponting's career was like a 17 year highlights reel. There wasn't a shot he couldn't play, and he dared to play them all. Over the course of a 100 test period in his career, he averaged sixty. Sixty. In his 100th Test, he made twin centuries; I suppose it says something that it didn't really come as that big a surprise. His best 52-test streak saw him average 75; second only to Bradman's immortal 99.94. As Gideon Haigh noted of Ponting during the 2006-2007 Ashes series, once he got to twenty, he set like concrete. Of all the batsmen I've watched, only Brian Lara had dizzier heights as a player. When he was on-song, and he largely called the tune for about five years in the mid-2000s, the bowling came all the same to him. Like Lara, that high back lift meant nothing other than bristling intent. His 140 in the 2003 World Cup Final ended the match as a contest by the thirtieth over. In 2005, he played arguably the greatest innings of his career: a match saving 156 in the third Ashes Test on day five against a rampant attack on a wearing pitch. Where everyone else struggled to just survive, Ponting played fearlessly and in such a manner that for a time in the afternoon session there were thoughts he might carry Australia to the unlikeliest of victories. He was a class above.
Not only a great player of pure pace, Ponting was also more than just adept against spinners. He played Muttiah Muralitharan as well as anyone, moving both forward and back with practiced ease, though never taking liberties against so fine a bowler. As with all great batsmen, his ability to play off both feet and to judge length against the slow stuff was superb. It was only in India where Ponting really struggled. His entrees there in 1996 and 1998 were forgettable, while his efforts in 2001 were nearly laughable as Harbhajan Singh ran rampant through the Australian line up. In 2004, Adam Gilchrist led the side for the first three tests and secured the long awaited series win. Ponting's return for the last Test was Australia's only loss of the series. In 2008 he finally scored his maiden Test ton in India and averaged 38. Ironically his best series there was his last, when he was past his prime. In the two tests of the 2010 series he managed four half-centuries and averaged 56.
For those who do not support Australia, Ponting was a wonderful pantomime villain. As Australia's best batsman, he so readily reflected the fortunes of the side he led, that he was an easy mark. That and the fact he was just so damn good. In 2009, when Australia rolled England cheaply at Headingley, he played the most blistering cameo. His 80-odd came in next to no time, barely a false stroke played. Any hope the hosts had of reining in Australia disappeared, like the ball, to all parts of the ground. Nevertheless, England had the last laugh in that series, as they had in 2005, ensuring Ponting would never lead a successful Ashes team to England. His on-field demeanour having such a hard edge, it was easy for opposing supporters to relish the chance to let Ponting know what they thought of him. Still, can anyone recall him delivering a post-match speech or press conference in which he did not give due credit to a victorious opponent? In this sense, Ponting played the game in the time-honoured Australian way: what happened on the field, in his eyes at least stayed on the field.
Any discussion about Ponting the cricketer is incomplete without reference to his fielding. He must surely be regarded among the greatest all round fielders ever to play the game. Whether at slip, close in, cover-point, midwicket or in the deep, he was simply brilliant. He made difficult catches look easy and had an incredibly accurate throwing arm. Like Mark Waugh among his team mates, it was worth attending a match to watch him field. It is difficult to isolate any one performance, but the catch at silly point from the leading edge of Dinesh Karthik on the final day of the 2004 series in India is my favourite as much for Ponting's reaction as for the anticipation, reflexes and athleticism of the grab itself. As he rose from diving full stretch to take the offering, he simply stood still, arms spread apart. It was as though he recognised the genius in what he'd done, and knew that any more demonstrative display would detract from it. To the last, he remained superbly athletic in the field, a product as much of hard work as innate ability.
The thing which stands out to me about Ricky Ponting is that he almost always took on the bowling. Be it Shoaib Akthar in Perth, Murali at the SSC or Flintoff at Leeds, that gloriously high back lift always signalled intent. Let the fastest of bowlers drop one short and he would swivel in that unique way of his and pull ferociously between midwicket and backward square. Although the shot led to his downfall later in his career, Ponting was the best exponent of the pull shot of his generation. In his pomp, he was a magnificent driver of the ball, particularly between mid off and mid on - the finest shot in cricket. This was the conundrum for the bowler, for you could neither drop short nor over pitch. Bowling to Ponting in his prime was an exercise only in damage control. My favourite shot of his was that take on the square cut which only he played. Neither a classic horizontal bat shot nor a back foot drive, the angled blade with which he met the ball ought to have given the bowler a real chance, yet I can barely recall him getting out edging that shot to the cordon.
The great thing about top line sport is we watch the greats with millions of others, but the memories of them are uniquely our own. My own favourite memories of Ponting are when he nearly ran me over in his four wheel drive at the SCG nets the day before the ICC Super Test in 2005, the near running-down a product of my wandering about looking to see whether practice had started, rather than watching what passes for the narrow roadways behind the Members' Pavilion. That he happily waved me on with a smile left (thankfully) the only mark of the incident upon me. The other is taking my son to pre-match practice ahead of last summer's Test against India and watching Ponting working for hours on his foot work in the nets before seeing him score his last hundred at the SCG a couple of days later. There can be no better lesson for a young cricketer than to see a masterful player still working, still striving to get the best from himself even when there are no more worlds to conquer and when in his heart he must know his powers are on the wane. "Just watch Ricky, mate. Just watch Ponting." I don't think he'll get much better advice than that.
It was wonderful yesterday to see this great cricketer meet his family at the end of the match and look so happy as his life takes its new course. Sadly, lovers of Australian cricket - no, of great cricketers - could not share the joy. For here was an era passing before our very eyes. The last great player from the most consistently great Australian team we have seen was moving on.
It is no small feat to play for one's country. To do so 560 times, play in 100 winning Test matches, make 71 international centuries, captain a side to consecutive undefeated World Cup triumphs and to the only Ashes whitewash since 1921 is Boys' Own Annual stuff. Would that he might have scored one last dazzling century, but it wasn't to be. The Cricketing Gods write the scripts. Even the greats can only follow them.
To see Ricky Ponting leave the arena for the last time, to a standing ovation from fans, team mates and foes alike was a moving yet inspiring sight all at once. That he took the time to turn and acknowledge every corner of the ground - indeed, every corner of the cricketing world - during what can only have been an incredibly emotional time, speaks volumes for him. The applause will fade, but the memories never will. To the last he was a competitor. To the last he entertained.
Here was a batsman.