It was on my first tour to Australia, 10 years ago, that I bowled my first ball at Ricky Ponting. Before the game our coach, Duncan Fletcher, had drummed it into us how to bowl to him – six and a half metres from the stumps. I ran up, bowled and Ponting on-drove straight back past me for four.
Fletcher was not impressed. He pulled me aside when we got in, ready to hand out a bit of a bollocking. “What are you doing?” he said. “We talked about this.” He got the footage up and we measured it. There it was, six and a half metres – the perfect ball and Ponting hit me for four. Fletcher let me off that one!
The word great or legend is too easily used these days in sport but not about Ricky Ponting. It has been a fantastic career. He strikes fear into the opposition bowlers – I know, I’ve been there. His was the wicket you always truly valued. Sometimes you would stand there and think, ‘How am I going to get this guy out?’ It was not often you fancied bowling at him. His technique was good – of course it was – but he had this positive aura about him too.
He and Brian Lara were guys that would take you apart, score runs very quickly. Sachin Tendulkar would more often take balls on merit whereas Ponting and Lara had more strokes. They could destroy you. With Ponting you had to bowl good balls to get a dot ball, never mind getting him out. Where was he strong? Front foot, back foot and both sides of the wicket…
For the 2005 Ashes we came up with the idea of trying to get under his skin. Steve Harmison hit him at Lord’s in the first Test and cut him under his cheek (below) and not one of us went to see how he was. Justin Langer was at the other end and was taken aback by this. He didn’t know what to make of it and started saying “f****** hell, are we at f****** war here or what?” He was really giving it out. So we just turned round and said, “Yes.”
Then there was Trent Bridge when Gary Pratt ran him out and sparked Ponting’s angry reaction. I have a photograph up at home of me and Ashley Giles watching him walk off. We are standing slightly away from the huddle and Ponting is turning back and giving us words. The look on our faces!
He wasn’t shy in coming forward. If he felt someone was out of line, or something needed being said, he would be at the front of the queue. But everybody respected him as a player and a person. The South Africa captain, Graeme Smith, calls him the most competitive opponent he ever had – he was tough. He didn’t give it out unless you gave it to him, and if you did…
His batting had it all. At Old Trafford in 2005 he saved Australia by staying there for almost seven hours. He properly stonewalled us but he was always nice to watch, there was nothing ugly about his game. He exuded confidence whether he was playing an attacking game or a defensive one.
The one shot of his that most amazes me will be an odd one for a lot of people. It’s not his driving or cutting, but his leave. It was such a statement – the most confident leave you could see. It felt like a challenge to the bowler. If you could hit a four with a leave that was the way.
Off the field he kept himself to himself. In 2005 when we were going into their changing rooms he was aloof and reserved. That is down to his competitiveness – he was there to beat us, not make friends.
He was a good captain. But how good is hard to judge. It was not the most difficult job in the world, was it? – leading an attack with Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath at the other end, and then Brett Lee and Jason Gillespie. And a batting line-up of Langer, Matthew Hayden, Damian Martyn, Michael Clarke and you can go on. He was fortunate in having a very, very good team to lead. He was astute, though, and his team clearly loved playing under him and certainly played for him.
You always want to play the best and that Australian team is one you wanted to take on. And at the head of it all, Ricky Ponting. A great.