Some of Ricky Ponting’s finest moments on the field have come on the back foot. He would rock on to his back foot, move across the wicket a little, swivel, pick up the ball from outside the off-stump and almost effortlessly hit it for four or six. It was a thing of beauty – so pure that it made you believe in his greatness.
Gundappa Viswanath had the late cut, Sachin Tendulkar has the back-foot punch down the ground, Mohammad Azharuddin had the flick that made you believe he had wrists of rubber, and Greg Chappell owned the cover drive. Ricky Ponting’s is the pull shot. It was a shot that defined him.
It was an instinctive sort of thing. There are something’s that only you can do – it’s kind of what you are born to do and for Ponting, that thing was the pull shot. And when he was feeling really good about his game, he could hit it off the front foot as well.
But as good as Ponting’s back-foot game was, he was rarely ever on the back foot when he wasn’t batting. He wanted to win at all costs – some might call it an obsession, others might say he was driven. And in the eyes of cricket fans around the world, he was cast in the mould of the typical Aussie bloke – a straight-talking, brash, I’m always right, I-don’t-give-a-damn kinda guy.
During the 2011 World Cup match against Canada – his irritation at his team’s inability to dismiss Canada turned into outright anger when teammate Steve Smith barged into him while he claimed a high catch he had called for. It was a case of him showing his ugly side, but it wasn’t anything new.
In 2010, Umpires Aleem Dar and Tony Hill ran into an angry Ponting. Not that they wanted to. With his captaincy of the Australian squad in danger of slipping away, he clashed heatedly with the match umpires over an unsuccessful video review. Sections of the crowd gave Ponting a disapproving slow-handclap as he argued at length with Dar but he really didn’t care – he was just trying to get his point across.
India had its fair share of Ponting antics as well – in 2010, the right-hander was dismissed after making a determined 71 at Mohali, but as he was walking away Zaheer made remarks that sparked off a verbal exchange. Ponting was never one to back away from a fight — Ponting was even seen raising his bat at Zaheer, who then raised his hand pointing at the pavilion. Umpire Billy Bowden had to intervene to cool down the players.
He didn’t even spare his own team-mates. During India’s 2008 tour to Australia, Ponting and Brett Lee were involved in a heated exchange during the second Test against India that was slipping away when the blond paceman was not given a bowl on the fourth morning of the match.
But most of the above incidents are only from the latter part of his career. In his early days, Ponting was a hot head and he famously blew his fuse in the 2005 Ashes when he was run out by Gary Pratt. Pratt, a barely-known Durham youngster, was called into action during the fourth Test as fast bowler Simon Jones limped off. He was straight into the thick of the action as he ran Australia’s captain Ricky Ponting out, two runs short of his half-century.
Ponting, unhappy with what he perceived to be an unusually high number of substitute fielders during the series, stormed from the pitch pointing and mouthing at the England balcony and ended up being fined 75 percent of his match fee as a result.
But the incident most people remember Ponting for, was when he was involved in a fight outside a pub and earned a three match suspension from the national team. He sustained injuries in the fight and was forced to front a media conference with the black eye. It was then that he admitted that he had a “problem with alcohol.”
In fact, former England coach, Duncan Fletcher – who is now coach of India – once said: “If any side in the world doesn’t play within the spirit of the game it’s Ponting’s Australians.”
All this only illustrates that Ponting wasn’t perfect. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t great. He didn’t court controversy but he was certainly very good friends with it. In fact, in his own way, he was a flawed genius. He made mistakes throughout his career, a fact that only confirmed his mortality in our eyes. But it was his feats on the cricket field that were the cynosure of everyone’s eyes.
In fact, for a while, whether India likes it or not – he was the best batsman in the world. Tendulkar has now played 317 innings but if you take things back by around 45 innings, an image of Ponting’s greatness emerges — After 271 innings in Test cricket, Tendulkar had scored 13,447 runs at an average of 55.56. Ponting, at that same time, had played 240 innings for 11,859, average of 55.67.
If Ponting had continued in the same vein, at the 271-innings mark, he would have had for 13,584 runs — 137 more than Tendulkar. But it didn’t quite happen.
Tendulkar’s career had a re-birth of sorts and he now stands unchallenged. But for Ponting, that re-birth, that renaissance never arrived. Many will argue that given his place in the cricketing firmament, he didn’t need it.
In the end, he chose to go; to jump before he was pushed; to accept reality and to keep fighting like the typical Aussie bloke he’ll always remain.