And then there were two. Ricky Ponting finally responded gallantly to last orders before they could push him out the door. Behind him in the last chance saloon, toying with the idea of leaving but still trying to hang on to the good times, Sachin Tendulkar remained half out of his seat. Jacques Kallis was contemplating another.
Ponting’s 168th and final Test match and his 558th international for Australia will be against South Africa in Perth starting today. “I know I’ve given cricket my all,” he said. “It’s been life for 20 years. Not much more I can give.” Nobody argued.
This trio of players, greats of the game by any measure, are the last remnants of an era in which big time professional cricket was transformed. They have been three of the most illustrious players in a generation where Tests became a different type of game, borrowing and honing the methods which had become integral in the limited overs variety. And the longer game survived and blossomed in their hands simply because it was better to watch than ever it had been.
Ponting was in the vanguard of that. From the moment he signed his first bat deal, aged 12, he was destined to be a great player, though many on whom that citation has been bestowed have ended up in the gutter.
That it did not happen to him is a testament ultimately to his own pugnacious character. The most endearing quality about Ponting, and there were many as perhaps the most candid of all international captains, was his sheer Australianess.
As boy and man he was exactly as you imagined an Aussie cricketer would be and should be. He was tough, competitive, stern, downright mean, expected his colleagues to be likewise and damn the opposition.
But he was never less than honest off it. Ask Ponting a question and he answered it, and if he did not want to answer it, which was rare, he said so. He was straight. Of course, he changed over the years because in 17 years of professional sport the failure to adapt only brings the end closer.
When he first pitched up in England in 1997 he was 22 and the next big Australian thing. There had been plenty of those before. He was a bit cocky and a bit earnest all at once, he knew how good he was and was going to be but there was a down to earth attitude about him.
He liked dog racing and a bet but he talked about cricket with a serious attitude which bordered on the po-faced. When he went in to bat in his first Ashes Test, at Headingley, with the side at 50 for 4 and made 127 it was evident that he was around to stay. He stayed and stayed.
Ponting’s career was in the balance after one night early in 1999 following a one-day match in Sydney. He visited a well known drinking haunt in King’s Cross in the small hours – about 20 minutes after even this reporter had called it a night – and got into trouble. Punches were thrown and a couple of days later Ponting was fined, told to clean up his act and most humiliating of all sent for drink counselling.
He never looked back and when the job became vacant after Steve Waugh’s retirement there was only one candidate for the captaincy of Australia. He brought the same hard-nosed edge to the job as he had to all his cricket and if he rubbed along with umpires he was always on their case for the side’s benefit.
In England, a few weird spectators began disliking him which seemed to say a great deal about the state of the nation. Maybe it went back to the incident at Trent Bridge in the epic series of 2005 when Ponting showed his understandable displeasure at being run out by the specialist substitute fielder Gary Pratt. Thereafter he was booed.
Maybe there was an element of affection to it but this was a man who had won more consecutive Tests (16) than any other Test captain, had appeared in more Test wins than any other player (now up to 108) and averages above 50 and he deserved better than laddish banter. It was a cringing disrespect shown to a great cricketer.
That above all is Ponting’s legacy: he was a batsman right out of the top drawer. Australians have spent a few lifetimes looking for a new Bradman. They will never find one but they may also never have one who came as close as Ponting did either.
He did not prosper in all conditions and in 14 Tests in India he managed only one hundred. Maybe it was the fact that he tended to go at the ball with hard hands. But everywhere else and in both long and short forms of the game he was a master.
Ponting played in four World Cup finals, the last three of which Australia won, the last two in which he was captain, and in the third of which he scored one of the truly magnificent one-day centuries – 140 from 121 balls which India and Tendulkar crashing to defeat before they had started their reply.
Ponting’s departure after a lean run may give pause to both Tendulkar and Kallis about their own futures. The Australian decided there was no point in going on because he recognised that he was having a lean run and it was not necessarily about to improve. He was not meeting his own standards.
The Indian may decide shortly, may even be prompted by Ponting to decide, that the same applies to him. The South African appears different, for he still has the appetite and the form but his body which gives the impression that he should be able to walk through mountains keeps letting him down.
Ponting played his first Test match in Perth in 1995 and made 96 against Sri Lanka. And now he is playing his last there against South Africa. Some of us will be rooting for him to make the extra four.