Cricket: Ponting awaits his reign

Stephen Brenkley meets the Australian prodigy who has kept his powders dry

By all rational accounts, Ricky Ponting has every shot in the book and more. Unfortunately, confirmation of this has been impossible to ascertain so far this summer since most of the Australian batting prodigy's meaningful strokes have been restricted to the golf course or for shaving off his beard at Lord's last week.

He has no sooner thought of constructing a sizzling, wristy shot somewhere between mid-off and extra cover than the skies have darkened. He has been in England six weeks and, in common with a few colleagues, his tour has hardly started. These conditions are not conducive to regaining his place in the Test side, though he managed an orderly 64 at Leicester.

"It's pretty frustrating but there's nothing I can do about it," he said as his parade was rained on again in Oxford last week. "It does seem that every time I'm about to get a game it rains. But it's like that for the other boys, too. All I can say is that I'm feeling pretty good. I had the best net I've had for a long time the other day."

Ponting seems to have felt pretty good throughout his career. It was possible to tell that he might have a future in the game when the bat manufacturers Kookaburra offered him a contract at the age of 13, the youngest Australian to be so rewarded. Ponting is only 22 but the association is in its 10th year.

Despite an accident playing Aussie Rules Football which left with him a slightly shortened right arm, he was whisked off to the much-vaunted Australian Cricket Academy when he was 16 (a fellow alumnus in his year was Glenn McGrath) and was so impressive that its head coach, Rodney Marsh, said he was the sort of player who came along once in a generation. Such professorial praise was tantamount to being awarded a first-class honours degree at a conventional university.

"It was a great year," said Ponting. "It helped tremendously to have so many great former players like the Chappell brothers around giving advice. By the time you come out you believe in your own ability and feel you know your own game inside out."

Ponting was thrust straight into the Tasmanian side in the Sheffield Shield. In his first innings, still 17, he made 56 and by the end of his first season became the youngest Tasmanian to score a first-class century and the youngest Australian to score two hundreds in the same match. His first six innings for Tasmania against Western Australia all yielded centuries and the last of them, as a 19-year-old was his first double century. This run brought forth the phrase "Bradmanesque". Ponting promptly failed to get a seventh.

All this praise, the constant glowing assessment of an outstanding natural ability (he is compiling a hundred in fewer than every six innings) has failed to turn a hair on his head. Ponting is confident of his talent but it is not his way to push it in your face. He says his mates back home would not tolerate such behaviour. He is still close to them, still plays a couple of Grade games a season.

Young Ricky made his Test debut against Sri Lanka last year. He arrived immediately, making 96 on debut and being deprived of a century only by one of those lbw verdicts which might have gone the other way. But by the time he was elevated to No 3 against West Indies last winter he was out of form.

"There were flaws in my technique but I still don't know what they were," he said, revealing, thankfully, that he has human failings like the rest of us. "I was disappointed to be dropped but knew why. I went back to Tas and the Shield and by the end of the season was back in form. I couldn't really tell you the turning point."

Ignored for the Australians' tour of South Africa, he had all but given up expectations of a trip to England. Ponting likes punting and a winter of greyhound and horse racing loomed (he has four dogs and a share in two horses), between honing a golf handicap of four.

He was slightly difficult to recognise with the goatee missing, the result of a bet when Matthew Elliott scored a hundred at Lord's. By August, if the weather turns, his batting strokes alone may be quite sufficient to pick him out.

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