Cricket: Worship of a Tasmanian's devilry

Stephen Brenkley studies the talents of Ricky Ponting, new scourge of England
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The Independent Online
Ricky Ponting is 22 years old and yesterday at Headingley he completed a princely maiden Test century. The juxtaposition of those pieces of information should strike trepidation and perhaps a touch of longing into the hearts of English cricket followers. They mean that the boy from Tasmania has already grown into a man and will be around for probably six more Ashes series 10 years into the next century.

He is almost certain to lose form sometime over that sort of era - say for an innings or two - but the sort of class that Ponting possesses is neither lightly shed nor, in opposition terms, easily surmountable. The best that England or any other country may be able to hope for is that he decides to spurn cricket for one of his other passions, golf or greyhounds. He plays the former off a handicap of four and happens to race four high- class specimens of the latter.

Even for one blessed with Ponting's natural all-round talents and joyous enthusiasm, this is unlikely and long-term strategists would be well advised to start plotting some long-term strategy to effect his downfall. Given the general deficiences of England's bowling, an accident on some golf course or other might be the best policy for it is difficult to spot any obvious weaknesses in his batting.

Sure, he plays strokes, a batting ploy which always sets the pulses of bowlers racing but his fleetness of foot, his conviction and his range are such as to give them heart attacks. Ponting expressed all the right and expected things after his innings of 127 (it lasted 202 balls and contained 19 fours) but his reaction in reaching the milestone had already said it all.

"It was a bit of a sticky situation when I went in but the wicket flattened out. Matthew Elliott had decided that the longer we were in and got the shine off the ball and started hitting the gaps, we ought to be positive. I had the same philosophy."

Considering that when Ponting walked in the score was 50 for 4, Australia were making a mess of things, England were bowling like tigers and he had only just been recalled to the side after being left out for nine consecutive Tests, this was some philosophy. Never once did he contradict it.

In the space of four balls after 20 minutes or so yesterday he moved from 87 to 99 with three boundaries. The first was a thick edge which flew safely to third man, the second was a serene front-foot drive through cover and the third burst scintillatingly through the same space as he stood on his toes on his back foot. It has been said of Ponting's colleague in the Australian side, Greg Blewett, that he cover drives like an angel. Well, as young Ricky entered his languid stride at that moment and a little later when he casually pierced the ring of off-side fielders, it could be suggested that in this regard he might be Gabriel himself.

Explaining the dash through the nineties, Ponting who seems coolly confident but not brash said that, well, his first Test innings had ended on 96 and he was anxious to avoid that. That had been against Sri Lanka in December 1995 when he was lbw.

Not long after, promoted to No 3, he made 88 against the West Indies, but three single-figure scores later he was dropped. Many astute Australian observers were aghast at this, seeing it as discarding the future, but Ponting was both phlegmatic and pragmatic. He knew that some flaw had entered insidiously into his technique. Back in Tasmania it took time to disappear but eventually and inevitably it fled. Ponting has not looked back.

This has been a frustrating tour for Ponting. He has been denied much cricket because of the weather and a fixture shortage, and has spent a great deal of time on the golf course. He will go back as the first Australian with a maiden Test century and a round of 75 over the Old Course at St Andrews.