Ricky Ponting: From redemption man to cricketer supreme and Captain Instinctive

This Waugh disciple is now leading a more sober life. Stephen Brenkley meets a future Australian of the Year
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Ricky Ponting was a prodigy who has become a virtuoso. The transformation was not quite seamless and involved him getting sloshed as a newt a couple of times. It was what he likes to call his learning curve, presumably the arc his body took when he fell over.

Ricky Ponting was a prodigy who has become a virtuoso. The transformation was not quite seamless and involved him getting sloshed as a newt a couple of times. It was what he likes to call his learning curve, presumably the arc his body took when he fell over.

He was involved in a brouhaha in a Calcutta nightclub and followed this with a repeat in a Sydney bar which ended with him sporting a shiner and being invited by his bosses to seek alcohol counselling. Underneath his black eye two afternoons after the night before, Ponting said that he would come back "squeaky clean."

It is difficult to believe that he could be squeakier or cleaner, the five o'clock shadow, wrong-way-round baseball cap and deck trousers notwithstanding. As captain of the Australian cricket team, he is in England to try to win the Champions Trophy for the first time, the only piece of significant boodle (or other insignificant tat, come to that) to have eluded them.

As batsman supreme (the only one ranked in the top five in both forms of the game, with a Test aver-age in the past 25 matches above 70) he is nominated in three categories at the inaugural ICC Awards on Tuesday at Alexandra Palace. Ponting is now Australia's captain in both the Test and one-day formats. He was made one-day skipper early in 2002 and finally took over the Test leadership earlier this year. Barring unthinkable disaster, he will be here to defend the Ashes next summer. This is redemption indeed.

To be the captain of Australia is to hold down a sanctified place in society. Its substance has probably grown as the team have become more pre-eminent. The last three office-holders - Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Stephen Waugh - have all been made Australian of the Year.

If there is an element of "follow that" to Ponting's appointment, he shows no sign of it. He is as insouciant and as straightforward as he has always been, though you ought to be clear that a wrong-way-round baseball cap does not equate to a dunce's cap, and that underneath beats a clinical, incisive and ruthless cricketing brain.

"It hasn't made any difference to my life," he said. "It's only what you want to make it, I guess. Cricket is cricket for me. I'm captain of the side when I'm at the ground and don't think too much about it when I'm not. That seems to be how it works best for me. If you start worrying too much about it, you're just going to put pressure on yourself and end up tired and run-down. The team I've got around me look after themselves pretty much anyway, and I got a really good tip from Stephen when I took over the one-day captaincy, which was to look after myself as a player and batsman first and let the captaincy look after itself."

"Stephen" is Waugh, Ponting's hero, the most successful Test captain of all. When it was announced that Ponting would be the next Test captain, he made a simple announcement in which he said of Waugh: "I would have been happy to play the rest of my career under his inspirational leadership." Ponting makes light of his own leadership abilities, being gently evasive about the whole captaincy malarkey. But in the 70 one-day matches in which he has been captain, Australia have won 56, including the World Cup, in the final of which he made a commanding 140. It is an unparalleled record, and let it not be forgotten that he took over because Australia, under Waugh, had failed to reach the final of their domestic triangular tournament in the early part of 2000.

He had become a shoo-in to succeed Waugh as Test captain, and though his own form in the four matches he has been in charge has not quite been up to scratch - a top score of 92, average of 33 - the team's virtual omnipotence appears unaffected. On their March tour of Sri Lanka they were behind on first innings in all three matches, and won them all.

"As I've always done since I played the game, I've just sat back and watched the way people go about things, and I've learned a lot from Stephen over the years and, before that, Mark Taylor," he said. "You just pick up things, how to deal with situations. On the field you get instinctive things you think might work, might be right at that time. My whole captaincy theory is based on acting on your own instincts. If you think it's right, have a crack."

Ponting disdained the suggestion that the captaincy could affect his batting. Much, too much, was expected of him when he broke into Australia's side. He was so promising that he had a bat sponsorship at 13, lots of people said lots of complimentary things, he was all set up to be the latest new Bradman. Trouble was he was also a small-town kid, and although he left Launceston at 15 and has hardly spent more than six months at a time in Tasmania since, for a while he lent some support to the notion that although you could take the boy out of Tassie you could not take Tassie out of the boy.

"It all happened pretty quickly, which looking back now might not have been the best thing," he said. "It's been a pretty good learning curve over nine years. It took me a bit of time to get used to playing at the highest level, I didn't realise what I was doing, how highly held I was, as an Australian cricketer, in the public's eye, and I got a few wake-up calls. There's no doubt that it helped.

"I don't think I had to have those things happen to me to realise it, but things happen for reasons, and I might not be in the position I am now if those things hadn't happened."

He is indebted to his longtime (but now, at least, not so long-suffering) manager, Sam Halverson, and marriage to Rianna has also had a sobering, rounded affect on him. He probably still likes a bet - hence the nickname Punter - and still keeps racing greyhounds in Tas. "Don't mention the dogs to my wife." Home is now in New South Wales. Mrs Ponting travels with him for much of the time - the Australian team, with the wisdom and maturity that winning can bring, have no restriction on wives being on tour - and was in Taunton with him recently for his month-long sojourn with Somerset. His influence there was resounding.

Laid-back he may be, in the way his country likes to portray itself, but he will be a forceful captain who will make his voice heard. Australia have learned to deal with the demands of matches by altering their preparation, by making it more "recovery-based". But Ponting will have a thing or two to say about the expectations of the players. "There is a bit of a fear of burn-out and it's got to be discussed with the ICC. There has been a bit of a concern for three or four years about the amount of international cricket and the affect on players and their families. Ideally, we'd prefer 12 to 14 Test matches and no more than 35 one-dayers a year."

Should players influence this? "Yes, we should but it tends to be the other way round. Things are put in place and then we're asked about them. It's getting harder and harder, and we may see the stan- dard of cricket drop. We've got to guard against that."

Ponting also regularly touches on his desire to change the Australians' approach to sledging. "I think we've probably cleaned up our act. The last thing we want is players embarrassing themselves on the field, and it comes down to me. We want to take things out of the ICC's and match referees' hands and not just be remembered as good cricketers but as good people."

But would, say, Robert Key be given a gentle reminder about his tendency to put on a pound or two? Ponting smiled. Keysey had better lose a few pounds if he wants to avoid Australian advice on the nearest Weight Watchers, although he might also relish the badinage.

The batting is now inextricably linked to the captaincy. In Australia you can never be a captain out of form. It did eventually for Taylor and Waugh. Ponting is a thunderous player, a hard-handed hard hitter of the ball who can drive and pull off either foot. Between matches he hardly holds a bat, but equally he loathes being away for too long, hence his agreement to play for Somerset. "You have to be mature as a person before you can mature as a player, and I think I've done both of those things," he said. "I think I've learned the way I'm going to be successful."

He will probably need a hundred against India in the Test series of the year in October. For now, Ponting and Australia are not here to take the early-autumn air. They really want the Champions Trophy, and despite a general sniffiness towards it by some observers, he reiterated that it was treated by the players as the second most important one-day tournament they play in, and "we've got guys who only play one form of the game. It's very big".

Australia will come out with all guns blazing. None will blaze more aggressively than Ponting, and it would be a brave bet to make against Punter and his boys.

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