Book: At the Close of Play: My Autobiography
Author: Ricky Ponting
Publisher: Harper Sport
Pages: 700 pages
price: Rs 999
There is something about cricket that separates the captain from not just the rest of his squad,but also in an indeterminate yet substantial way the rest of his playing profile. When a cricketer has captained his national side for long enough,any appraisal of his possibly considerable career stats as a batsman,bowler or wicket-keeper fades somewhat against the temperament and style he brought to his captaincy. A review of Ricky Pontings autobiography is not the place to buttress the argument by a comparative study of,say,Sourav Ganguly and Sachin Tendulkar. Or even of Ponting and Adam Gilchrist. But in reading this doorstopper of a book,at 700 pages,with frequent asides in densely packed text on everything from winning and losing to various lists of greats amongst the men he played against,his straight-talking account leaves you wondering about the exact nature of his special place in the sport.
The Australians make a production,a deeply felt one,of acquisition of the Baggy Green to mark the induction of a cricketer in a Test team. And as far as captaincy of the Australian cricket team went,Ricky Ponting had a tough act to follow. His predecessors had stamped their personalities on the job designation. Let alone Allan Border earlier,his two immediate predecessors were formidable. Mark Taylor had barely left the game when umpires would routinely lapse into recollections of what a pleasure it would be officiate a game with him around. Taylor,of course,also left us wondering for ever afterwards about whether it was the Australian in him or it was just him that inspired him to declare the innings when he had equaled Don Bradmans highest Test score,to push for victory and (perhaps) pay tribute to the great man. Steve Waugh brought his own brand of grittiness to the field,and he dominated the chatter with his strategising and tactics besides the charity work here in India,showing himself to be less insular towards the subcontinent at a time when his mates were rumoured to come visiting with bags of canned pasta to avoid local food.
From them,Ponting took over the captaincy of what was,a decade ago,the worlds most fearsome cricket side. It was not just that Australia were winning most of what came their way; they were considered to be on the verge of taking the game into an orbit away from the rest. It appears ridiculous today,but a decade ago their coach would hold forth on how Australia had become the mean machine they were and go on to add,in equal seriousness,some impossible goal like becoming ambidextrous,and others would sit up and take notice. It was to be the arc of the Age of Ponting to span from this dominance (he made his Test debut in 1995,the year Australia took the baton from the West Indies) to its eventual decline (if only to the level of the rest of the fray,winning some and now also losing some). It is in this arc that his records fall,the second highest number of Test and ODI runs in the history of the game and the spectacular run at the World Cup.
It comes as a surprise then to find that if there is a theme running through this account of his career is his quest not just for excellence and victory,but also for straight-talking,by his seniors and Cricket Australia and by his competitors. The account is laced with regret,for instance,that the sink or swim ethos of the 1990s deprived him of mentoring that could have kept him from the drinking binges that put question marks on his discipline and also that on the field could have,say,helped him figure out his game quicker.
The book has drawn disapproval from many cricketers,from Shane Warne (for criticising Michael Clarkes leadership) to Anil Kumble (for resurrecting the Monkeygate controversy). But there is a lot more,occasionally drearily so,packed into these pages to detain anybody interested in how the mind of a great sportsperson works,especially one who finds himself managing exceptional dominance and then declining fortunes.