Ricky Ponting and my part in his downfall

Gary Pratt, England's unlikely 12th man, tells his side of the glory story to Stephen Brenkley
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The Independent Online

It was a stunning piece of fielding, with immediate repercussions that have given its perpetrator a permanent place in the game's folklore. At the victory parade through London on Tuesday, his name was regularly chanted by those lining the streets and a flag handed up to the open topped bus was hung from the upper deck. It read: Gary Pratt OBE.

At Trent Bridge on the Saturday of the Fourth Test, Pratt, the black arrow, was the toast of England, hoisted on to Andrew Flintoff's shoulders. Ricky Ponting, having looked dangerously secure on 48, cracked for the first time by mouthing a string of expletives as he departed.

He was unhappy about several things: the state of the match, the state of the series, the cause of his demise at the hand of a substitute fielder. His world was caving in. It can now be revealed that Ponting was especially unlucky: it was the first time all summer that Pratt had hit the stumps.

"I can't really remember much about it," said Pratt. "All I can recall is that Damien Martyn dropped it down with quite a bit of pace on the ball. I just thought, 'Right, that's it' and went to the left and threw one-and-a-half stumps down, which was pretty good as the first of the season. Sometimes you miss, sometimes you hit, simple as that. I hadn't hit all summer, as I told the lads when they surrounded me.

"It didn't sink in at the time, but gee whizz, when I ran back to my position on the boundary the whole crowd started singing. It was phenomenal. We'll never know how important it was, but the next day, when the papers were full of questions about substitute fielders, we saw a side of Australia we hadn't seen before. We saw that we were getting under their skin."

Pratt's experience of the big time has been brief but deserved. He was called in by England as 12th man because of his unquestionable fielding prowess, and when he got on the field invariably patrolled the covers. But yesterday Pratt was back on duty in club cricket, playing for Tynedale in their crunch match against Ashington to decide the destiny of the Tyneside Senior League title.

If that scenario could be used as a classic example of coming down to earth with a bump, Pratt was not treating it lightly. Perhaps not least because Ben Harmison, the brother of fellow Ashes hero and Durham colleague Stephen, was in the opposition ranks.

Win or lose, however, there were no plans for an open-topped bus ride, and Pratt recognises the incongruity of his experiences over the past few days: from Ashes legend to club pro in five days.

But he also demonstrates the meticulousness of England's planning. He was first given an opportunity as 12th man at Headingley against New Zealand in June 2004 as the lad from up the road. In the world of the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, there is no such thing as "only the 12th man". He would have looked not only at the way Pratt fielded but at how he practised and conducted himself in the dressing room.

"Obviously they get players in to see what they're like around the guys," Pratt said. "I'm quite quick, and as I can't bowl very well I thought I'd better become a good fielder. I think Duncan and the management maybe liked my attitude and willingness to work at my game and it's gone on from there. I have felt like such a part of the team, and for me to say that about a side that has won the Ashes is pretty special when I'm not even in the squad as such. Everybody treats everybody just the same."

Pratt, whose brother Andy is an excellent wicketkeeper in search of a county after being released by Durham, has become a kind of supersub for England. He did two of the matches last year, and has been twelfthers in four of the seven Test matches this year, including three against Australia.

The downside to this is that he has been available for duty because he has not been in the Durham side. He was dropped early last summer after an auspicious beginning to his career, and has been unable to get back.

"I played every game for the first three years of my career, then all of a sudden not to be picked is a bit of an eye-opener," said Pratt, still only 23. "I've been playing pretty well in the seconds and it's good for the club that there is competition for places. But I suppose there's always a positive to come out of a negative, and that has come in the shape of England. It's terrific to feed off those guys."

Pratt's ambition, after reclaiming his Durham place, is to make the England squad for the 2007 World Cup. If his chances look slender, then he has the benefit of having impressed Fletcher. He must also have impressed Andrew Flintoff, who in typically magnanimous style ensured Pratt was made to feel at home. Pratt kept the great man company drink for drink throughout the Ashes celebrations, and they came into the Long Room together at Lord's on Tuesday. The world's greatest all-rounder and the black arrow.