On the fifth day of the Adelaide Test – as Faf du Plessis blocked South Africa to safety and Channel Nine’s commentators searched for fresh topics to discuss – the focus turned to the condition of the Australian fieldsmen’s caps. Bobby Quiney’s baggy green – the first man with a surname starting with ‘Q’ to wear the famous hat – had dark green felt and a proud gold coat of arms (and in light of his luckless two-match stint in the national team, it’s unlikely to receive much more use). Mike Hussey’s had lightened considerably, while Michael Clarke managed to keep his in pretty good nick. Ricky Ponting’s, however, was in a sorry state of disrepair. The peak had frayed and the stitching around the button had unravelled. The symbolism was obvious.
This was the same Test where the former skipper ended up on all fours after being yorked by Jacques Kallis. The same match where he chopped on after scrounging his way to 16 late on Day Three. Much like the once-sparkling cap that was now scuffed and faded, one of Australia’s finest ever cricketers was no longer in mint condition.
Ponting admitted as much at the emotional announcement of his retirement at the WACA on Thursday. Before the South Africa series, he was the Sheffield Shield’s leading run scorer, but that form didn’t translate into the Test arena. It’s one thing to dispatch Andrew McDonald for runs, it’s entirely another to get on top of Dale Steyn. Ponting is clearly still a good player, but perhaps not a Test match player – and certainly not the Test match player he once was, and he would like to be remembered as.
Ponting’s decision was an extremely selfless one considering the Sri Lankans are around the corner, and away from home and sans Murali, they would have been easy pickings for a batsman of Ponting’s ilk. He could have reeled off a century or two and hopped on a plane to England for the Ashes, but perhaps when Steyn knocked over his castle in Adelaide, Ponting realised he wasn’t up to a northern summer of Anderson, Broad and Tremlett swinging the Duke all over the place.
Was he pushed? Logic says no. The selectors should show more regard to a man with his record. There’s no one bashing down the door in Shield cricket. And had he wanted to continue to fight tooth and nail for his spot as he has done the last two years, he would have. A headstrong character like Ponting doesn’t fall on his sword or answer to ‘jump or be pushed’ ultimatums.
As it is, Ponting will go out with great dignity. The team is performing well so he hasn’t been some tremendous burden, and it’s easy to forget that only six Tests ago he peeled off a double century against India. He’s exiting on his own terms, and characteristically, without the cloying sentimentality of Steve Waugh’s bloated farewell tour. He will accept the applause in Perth – a venue that offers a neat symmetry to Ponting’s career, being the venue where he debuted in 1995 – and fade off into the sunset to celebrate his 39th birthday in a week or two.
One of the great points of discussion that has emerged from Ponting’s retirement has been where the Tasmanian sits in the Australian pantheon. ‘Best since Bradman‘ has been a term bandied around, without proper regard for some of the country’s other great postwar batsmen.
It’s almost impossible to split the achievements of Greg Chappell and Neil Harvey – the two men who occupied the middle-order spots in the Team of the Century, announced in 2000 – or Steve Waugh and Allan Border – Australia’s two greatest Aussie battlers – and Ricky Ponting. That Fab Five comprise a distinct echelon of batsmen sitting just below Bradman in the postwar epoch and ranking their achievements is splitting hairs – that being said, it’s an interesting argument.
One meaningful distinction that can be made between that group is the role they played in their respective teams: Chappell, Harvey and Ponting, the top-order aggressors that imperiously dominated opponents; Waugh and Border, the rearguard street fighters adding steel lower down. Although the latter’s achievements are wholly admirable – scrapping for runs, often with little support, especially in Border’s case – the skill and grace and talent of the former category places them marginally higher up the pecking order.
Is it possible to split Chappell, Harvey and Ponting? Statistically, the trio are extremely similar (averaging 53.86, 48.41, 52.21 respectively; a century every 3.6, 3.8, 4.1 games). Ponting has scored the most runs (13,366 and counting, by virtue of playing twice as many games as the other two), but perhaps where he falls behind is style. Sure, a subjective criterion, and I am too young to have seen the two old stagers live. But Harvey was renowned as a crowd pleaser in an era of staid cricket, and old tapes of Chappell look like an MCC coaching manual being played out in the flesh. On the other hand, even in his pomp in 2003, you would never have described Ponting as graceful. He punched at the ball, he lacked a genuine square cut so he found a way to jerk wide balls through point with an angled bat, he mauled bowlers with his trademark hook and pull. He was just a great accumulator of runs, while the lusty blows of Matthew Hayden, the elegance of Mark Waugh and the explosive Adam Gilchrist hogged the highlights reels. Similarly, Ponting was always cushioned by elite batsmen at the other end – Langer, Hayden, the Waughs, Martyn, Lehmann, Hussey, Gilchrist – whereas Chappell and Harvey were left to do more work on their own. For that reason, in my opinion, Greg Chappell retains the ‘Best-since-Bradman’ title.
It’s also worth noting the aspects of Ponting’s career that perhaps take the shine of his blemish free batting dossier. Not a month after I attended my first ever Test match – the pulsating first day of the fifth Ashes Test against England in 1998-99, when Mark Taylor won his fifth toss of the series in his final ever match, the Waugh brothers shared a 190-run stand and Darren Gough claimed a hat trick – a black-eyed, hungover Ponting was dumped from the ODI team after a stink at Kings Cross’ Bourbon and Beefsteak; an image that’s been hard to shake even with the passing of time. He settled as captain – first of the one-day team in 2002, then the Test outfit in 2004 – but by 2011, after so long under the spotlight, a mortifying demolition at home to England and a flailing World Cup campaign, the pressure had clearly taken its toll. He snapped at Steve Smith, he barked at the Indian media during the volcanic 2008 series, and his replacement by Michael Clarke has proved a sound decision. Under Ponting’s direction, Australia lost three Ashes series and some of Australia’s all-time greats, and that casts a shadow over his career.
It would be unfortunate if the prevailing image of the grumpy Ponting replaced the one of the run machine of 2003, the fighter who scored 156 in Manchester in 2005 to stave off defeat, the dasher who clattered an unbeaten 140 in Johannesberg in 2003 as Australia romped to World Cup glory (incidentally, captaining a side to back-to-back unbeaten WC campaigns is one of Ponting’s finest, if underrated, accolades), the star who notched consecutive double tons against India before taking over the captaincy, a position he made his own in 2006-7 when his Baggy Greens effected a stunning 5-0 series win over the Old Enemy.