Few careers end with novelistic symmetry, however much circumstances urge them to. RT Ponting's at least ended where it began, at the WACA, with long shadows across the ground on a perfect summer's early evening. The storyline might have suggested Ponting's circle close with his team back at number one and a big score in the book to echo his debut all those years ago, but it was not to be. It won't matter in the long run.
There will be lots of stats and anecdotes in the papers to sum up the epic sweep of those years, so no need to repeat them here. Instead, here's something else: the day I met Punter. It was in the summer of 2010, and the Australians were over for some one-day internationals. They had a press day for their sponsors at the team hotel in Kensington. In what was a rare foray into proper cricket journalism, a magazine had commissioned me to go along and ask the captain of Australia some questions sent in by their readers, except the readers hadn't sent any so I made them up on the tube on the way over.
In a low-lit conference room somewhere in the basement, its tables lined with untouched and slowly-warming tins of the sponsors' product, Ponting sat on a small sofa, his loyal lieutenant Michael Hussey to his right, and, for comic relief, Dougie Bollinger to his left. I hadn't been told that the others would be there, but seeing as I'd just made the questions up anyway, invited them to join in when they felt like it. They were all dressed identically: trainers, standard issue team kit and sponsors baseball hat. Ponting had a big white sticking plaster on his elbow. Squished together for some hours already, patiently answering what were no doubt the same daily press enquiries, it would have been understandable had they been keen to sit tight and get things over with, but Ponting rose to shake hands and introduce me to his team-mates himself rather than wait for the hovering PRs or presume that I knew who they were.
He was taller and leaner than I'd imagined, and even the famous hairy forearms weren't actually that hairy. The snaggle-toothed grin that made him look so punchable in those early years of apparently endless victory was much softer in person. We sat down. I knew one thing would be true of him just from watching him play: he was obsessive about his bats, you could tell just by looking at the clean and perfect blades he always used, so I asked him if he could remember his first one.
"Oh yeah," he said right away. "It was a Duncan Fearnley, size five. God knows how long I had that bat for. I kept patching it up, taping it up. I'll still have it somewhere."
"Mine was a County Clubman. It cost $19..." said Mike Hussey.
"Nineteen bucks, Huss... that was expensive back then."
"Yeah, for the '50s," said Dougie, and Ponting gave him a perfectly-timed reproachful glare.
Ice broken, we had a high old time, or at least I did. We talked about
dreams of cricket, the moments when you're just about to fall asleep
and see a ball flying at your head and jerk yourself awake, and anxiety
dreams where you can't find your bat, or tie your laces. "Yeah," he
said, "going out to bat and you can't find your way from the rooms
down onto the pitch. I have that one."
He told the story of losing his first baggy green after about 20 Tests or so, in transit from Sri Lanka, and how anyone who lost one now would have to fill out lots of forms to get another because somewhere along the way, the cap itself had become a symbol of value (his sympathies were with the older players "doing it tougher than us" who were reduced to selling them on ebay). Mike Hussey chipped in with a vivid description of what it was like to face Murali in his pomp, the great whirr of elbows and wrists, the whites of his eyes glowing as his arm came over.
It was good to watch them interact. Dougie was funny, but he was careful not to cross the line with his skipper. Hussey, true to form, just seemed to like talking about cricket. I mentioned that Viv Richards was supposed to have had such sharp eyesight that he could pick out individual faces in the crowd. "Ricky likes to spot fights," Hussey said. "He quite often comes down between overs and says, 'Hey Huss, see a couple of blokes having a go over there'..."
The hour passed quickly. I wanted to know if he knew what his highest Test and ODI scores were, and also his averages. "My highest in Tests is 257," he said. "In ODIs it was that game against South Africa, 167 or 174 or something. All I know is we lost." He didn't know his averages, and then Mike Hussey tried to claim that he didn't know his either, and Ponting and Dougie smiled.
We spoke about various bowlers and he said that the one who had given him the most problems had been Harbhajan.
"Does that bother you?' I asked.
"Yes," he said, and folded his arms.
For Ponting to have confronted his decline in the way he did seems entirely typical, yet the 'results' he reckoned have nudged him into retirement have not been catastrophic. In 2012, he has made 600 runs at 42.85 (better than Watson, Warner, Cowan, Quiney, Marsh, and also Tendulkar, Bell, Trott, Gambhir and plenty of others). Yet he was born into greatness. It's only a hunch, but I think he watched Michael Clarke play the way he has, and Hashim Amla too, and realised that he could no longer visit that place. It's not that he doesn't think he's as good as Kawaja or Hughes or whoever fills his spot. It's that he knows he will never again bat like Clarke or Amla are at the moment. It has gone for him. That is the mirror he has stared into, and there was only his past to stare back.
That past will soon assume its nostalgic glow. Ricky Ponting's batting was never quite beautiful but it will live long in the memory. He is what the Americans call Test cricket's "winningest" captain. Yet what gives his retirement its poignancy is the distance he has travelled as a man. He took over the Australian side knowing nothing of defeat and with a sense of entitlement that it took losing to erode and turn into something else. He grew as his team declined. The innings that summed up best the second act of his career was that day-long 156 at Old Trafford in 2005, one of the great and defiant match-saving digs.
Beyond that, he has been true to himself and true to the game. To all of the tributes with that point, add this one. He had no reason to make my hour with him enjoyable, other than his duty to the captaincy of his country, and also to himself. It was over for him as soon as the PR shut the door, but I'll always remember it. That's the secret, and the truth about him.
On Talking and Writing about Cricket
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