It is easy to hate Ricky Ponting. In fact, hate of any kind comes easy. All you need is ignorance. But the more you understand Punter’s psyche, you gain a deeper appreciation for a quintessentially Aussie cricketer who was brutally competitive on the field but equally genial and jovial off it. And that’s a statement I make not based on hearsay, but because I had once met him about five years back for an interview and was instantly charmed at how he had no airs about being a superstar cricketer (he was the Australian captain at that time).
Relaxing in the evening outside his hotel room enjoying a beer he answered the questions without a hint of impatience even though he was slated to head for an event in 20 minutes time. In fact, I had tailed him the whole day for the interview – from the time in the morning that he was at the St. John’s cricket ground for making a guest appearance at a cricket clinic to the afternoon when he went and indulged himself in a game of tennis ball cricket with a bunch of underprivileged kids at ING Vysya Bank’s office. He was in India during the off season to promote a cause for ING called Run Ricky Run where every run he scored that season would translate to a donation for a schooling program the bank ran for the kids who played that tennis ball game with him. At every step of the way he was rather accommodating and composed, never too casual yet not detached. He fondly recalled during the interview his other passions – the sports of Aussie Rules Football and Golf and looked like a nice man you’d want to invite over to your backyard barbecue party every summer, with his family in tow.
On the cricket field, though, Ponting the cricketer was a hugely different proposition. There, he was the barbecue grill, and the opposition was tender meat. Much like he batted (his imperious cuts and pulls are easily the best of any batsmen in the modern era), Ponting was always aggressive and fiercely competitive, often blurring the lines between gamesmanship and provocation. I do not write this as an apologist for his conduct now that he’s announced his retirement, but I believe his embodiment of this competitive spirit and forceful leadership (which had its share of controversies) is what kept Australia at the top after Steve Waugh handed the mantle over to him.
I know many Indians who would hate him, and against India there have been times when he has been particularly devastating (my favourite innings – although at that time I was seething with rage – of Ponting’s is his epic 242 vs India at Adelaide in 2003/04 closely followed by that shellacking he gave us in the World Cup Final of 2003) but more than hating him for the person he is, most of it was perhaps because of how intimidating he could be. He had a disastrous tour of India in 2001 and hasn’t done very well in India overall (his average is a dismal mid 20s in tests here) but he’s recovered enough to have a career average in the mid 50s against India with 8 centuries. In fact, he finally did get a hundred in India, 123 in the Bangalore Test in 2008, a game I had the good fortune of watching. He has always been a cricketer who doesn’t give up. Many people are described as fighters on the cricket field. Ponting epitomizes the idea.
His winning streak and the pride he took in winning is captured by one startling stat – he is the first cricketer to have played in 100 test victories. Yes you can read that again. In a world where 100 tests is an achievement, Ponting has 100 plus wins to look back on. (108 before his last Test that will be at Perth) And we haven’t even mentioned the three World Cup victories (and a 34-match winning streak in that competition) and the Ashes wins.
As he announced his decision to retire with the upcoming Perth Test against South Africa to be his last, he said at the press conference “this is where it all started for me, I think 17 years ago, this is where it all started, and that’s where it’s going to finish“. Perth is a venue that probably has a karmic connection with the man. In 2008, after that acrimonious Sydney Test against India that was marred by umpiring howlers and allegations of sledging crossing certain lines, India pulled off a magnificent victory at Perth. On the fourth morning as Australia chased an almost impossible target, Ishant Sharma produced a spell of a lifetime that had Ponting clueless for the most part. And in the last over of that spell, he fell, closing a most fascinating hour of Test cricket. But that only tells you half the story about Ponting. Like most other fans who never bothered to look at Ponting in the whole, you can indulge yourself in that bit of schadenfreude relishing his failure. But maybe you should know that he bounced back in the next Test at Adelaide with a 140 that ended a 13-month Century drought. Just when you thought you’d delivered the knock out punch, the man was back with a counter you hardly expected. He did it with the bowlers often, and he’s done it through his career.
That’s why I think Ponting should simply be remembered as fighter, one who meant and inflicted grave injury in battle but was a different man in peacetime. Because that’s how I, a self confessed Ponting baiter, would reconcile myself to his legend.