At some point during Indias high-tension chase in their World Cup quarterfinal against Australia last year,a photographer snapped Ricky Ponting in a rare moment of outward anguish: semi-prostrate,the top of his yellow cap pinned against the bright green Motera outfield. Ponting,perhaps the greatest all-round fieldsman in the modern game,had just committed a misfield. Perhaps the fumble told him that he would,for the first time in five World Cups,go home without getting to the final.
Between the French-bearded youth who had skipped down the track,helmetless,and clouted Ian Bishop over extra cover in 1996 and the under-fire 36-year-old who played a similar shot off Munaf Patel during his century in that end-of-an-era 2011 quarterfinal,Ponting had been the only constant in Australias top six. Now,after scores of 2,1,6,2 and 7 in his last five ODI outings,we will never see him in canary yellow or dark green.
Four World Cups,four finals,three victories,two as captain. Behind him,featuring in three finals each,were Adam Gilchrist and Michael Bevan,destructive opener and clinical finisher,fire and ice the most celebrated roles in limited-overs cricket. Batting at number three,Ponting wasnt either,but he carried the baton between the two better than anyone else in his era,imposing himself on attacks as soon as he arrived,whether he walked in at zero for one or 157 for one.
The score was 10 for three when Ponting and Andrew Symonds came together against Sri Lanka at the SCG in 2006,in the second final of that triangular series. Chaminda Vaas had taken all three wickets. Sri Lanka had won the first final. At 13 for three,Vaas dug one in and got it to rise neck-high. Ponting took a short step back,pivoted,and dumped it behind square for six. Ponting made 124 and put on 237 with Symonds. Australia made 368 and made one-nil down and 10 for three look like a minor aberration.
This was perfectly illustrative of the Ponting era. Australia only rarely gave opponents a window of opportunity,and even then usually slammed it shut in their faces. The skipper was often slammer-in-chief. Especially in the really big games. Like Johannesburg,2003.
After a pounding from Gilchrist,two strikes from Harbhajan Singh brought India back into the final of the 2003 World Cup. In the six-over window between the exits of Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden,Australia scored only 20 runs. You know what happened next. You definitely know if youre an Indian fan who wished at the end of it all that you had switched the TV off and prepared instead for your physics exam scheduled for the next day.
The air over the high-altitude Wanderers stadium must have been more rarefied than ever before. Or it was just Ponting attaining a rarefied zone of ball-striking. Its staggering to think that his unbeaten 140 contained just four fours. That day,he shelved the drives down the ground and that dainty flick off his toes. That day,he rained sixes eight in all into the leg-side stands. Once,he went down on one knee and swatted Ashish Nehra over deep square leg with bottom hand slipping off bat handle.
At times like that,to anyone who wasnt an Australian fan,Ponting seemed like the face weirdly reminiscent of George W. Bush of a ruthless sporting empire. After all,he won 165 of his 230 matches as captain. Of his 13704 ODI runs,he scored 10726,not far shy of 80 per cent,in wins.
In love with cricket
The post-captaincy Ponting has been easier to admire,in an almost unconditional way. He speaks frankly of his technical struggles in press conferences. On the field,he occupies second slip not with the aloofness that some deposed skippers might exude but with the air of someone still madly in love with the game. The ODI axe may have fallen,but he remains vital to Australias short-to-middle-term Test lineup.
The passion for cricket for me has not died or changed one bit, he said on Tuesday. I still dont see a finish line as far as my international career is concerned. Now that one-day cricket isnt there any more we all know that day is coming closer and closer. Im not the sort of person who is going to want to have a massive farewell series. Ill make a decision when I think that I cant contribute to winning games for Australia.