Kevin Garside: Everyman Ponting bows out as legend of Australian grit
You need a rope and crampons to scale the stats mountain he compiled
The summer ahead will not be the same without a spot of Punter-baiting. Few embodied what it is to be Australian on a sporting field more than Ricky Ponting, from his indomitable spirit to the verbal tick with which he always began an answer "Aw look, mate." That Ponting was one of the greats of the game is beyond doubt. You need a rope and crampons to scale the stats mountain he compiled, which at his time of going is cricket's third highest batting peak, measuring more than 13,000 runs at an average of 52.
Ponting first crossed my radar via a telephone link to rural France where former Australian captain Richie Benaud was in repose following his retirement from the commentary box. The Ashes series of 1994-95 in Australia was the purpose of my call fleshing out a piece I was writing for the Sunday Express. We knew about the Waughs, Warne, Slater and McGrath. Who else should I look out for, Richie? Ponting's was the name he came back with, telling me he was one of the best young batsmen he had seen, a player capable of evoking memories of even the Don himself.
In the event he didn't make that side and had to wait until the following year to claim the baggy green. He was, however, selected in an Australian XI that faced England in his native Tasmania and knocked off an impressive half-century to mark the tourists' card. I first saw him in the flesh at the 1996 World Cup final in Lahore, where he clipped 45 of 73 balls en route to defeat under lights against Sri Lanka. Thirteen years later he was coming towards the end of his innings and I intercepted him in Perth, where he submitted to the tyranny of the interview for more than an hour on a morning of rabid headlines in the Aussie papers.
Australia had lost their first Test series on home soil in more than a decade. The end of the world was nigh and Ponting was in the thick of it. "Aw look, mate…." It was hardly his fault. Arguably the greatest side in Test history had been dismantled. The twin towers of Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne had gone. Adam Gilchrist and Jason Gillespie, too. He was seeing in the next generation and failing with the bat, opening the series with a symbolic golden duck.
That evening he would lead out his team in the first match of the one-day international series. They would lose that match, too, and the series with it. He might have been having a lie-in or going through the final preparations with the coaching staff. That could wait. He had made a commitment. The piece would carry a banner to promote the charitable foundation set up with his wife Rianna to support young cancer sufferers and their families in Australia. He joked about the possibility of bringing back Shane Warne for the coming Ashes series in 2009, one he was desperate to win having captained the team to defeat in England in 2005. His disastrous decision to bowl first at Edgbaston that year against the express advice of Warne was always a tension. He could at least laugh about it now.
His knock at Old Trafford in that same series, 156 on the final day to earn Australia a draw, was as good as any seen in Manchester, including either of the similarly preternatural centuries by Steve Waugh in 1997 on an exploding wicket.
Ponting's was not a life of privilege. As a rugged son of Launceston, the Tasmanian capital, he embodied the soul of Australia, a million miles from the air-kissing cosmopolitan elite of Sydney. He loved a bet and a drink, and brought every ounce of that everyman culture to the crease.
By the time you are reading this he will probably have played his last in circumstances that do scant justice to gifts. At his peak Ponting would pick anything short of a length and pull it out of the ground with forearms better suited to a smithy. Anything fuller would be sent whistling back whence it came no matter who was sending down the delivery.
His 48 victories in 77 Tests between 2004 and 2011 make him the most successful captain in history, though even he would not deny the contribution of Warne, McGrath, Hayden, Langer, Gillespie and Gilchrist rather than his own cutting-edge strategy in putting that run together. He counts his achievement at the 2003 World Cup in South Africa when he clobbered 140 in the final to see off India at the Wanderers as his personal pick. Australia won all 11 matches they contested.
Overnight in Perth Ponting was back in the same dog house that claimed him four years ago, with a South Africa boot once again at his throat. This is the era of Amla and Smith, Steyn and Morkel. Leave them to it, Ricky. At least you won't have me knocking on your door first thing in the morning. Aw look, mate.
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