Adam Wakefield

Ricky Ponting: The last of the conquistadors

Seneca, the stoic Roman philosopher, said “it is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness”. He makes a fine point. Great men only emerge once they have endured trial and tribulation, exposing the barest shivers of their true character, which will either rise with the occasion or collapse under the weight of their own and others expectation.

History has generated numerous examples where the greatness of a man (or woman depending on your example) emerges within the context of circumstance. Winston Churchill, an advocate of empire, cigar smoker and possible alcoholic, will never be referred to as those things within the greater story of how his example inspired the United Kingdom to endure the best and the worst years of World War II.

Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s favourite and brightest son, holds the same place in South African history as Mahatma Gandhi does within India: liberator, a bedrock of principle and most of all, an example for all to follow.

Cricket was spread across the globe by the British Empire looking to, in the words of Niall Ferguson in Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, “to ‘entice and attract’ people toward British values”. While Britain’s influence on the spread of cricket is undeniable, with all major cricket powers being former colonies of the Union Jack, what it did do was create a sense of common history.

Wherever cricket is played, if you travelled from South Africa to Pakistan, even if you could barely exchange a word in each others’ language, as soon as you pick up a cricket bat, both parties immediately know how to express themselves.

The common language of cricket, forged in a series of five-day meetings on 1927 different occasions (the total number of Test matches that have been played to date) has created a Pantheon of heroes who inspire others to pick up the willow and engage with this most fabled, and from a non-cricketer point of view, most misunderstood past time.

Sir Viv Richards, Sir Donald Bradman, Graeme Pollock, Sunil Gavaskar, Imran Khan, Sir Richard Hadlee, Sir Jack Hobbs and Muttiah Muralitharan (he will be there) are champions from eight different nations who all share the same common history on the cricket field.

Ricky Ponting, the current Australian captain, finds himself at the crossroads of joining this illustrious group (including the many, many names that I failed to mention). Since taking over the Australian Test captaincy from another luminary, Steve Waugh, he has been fighting to emerge from the old warriors shadow. Even though Waugh is retired, he still exerts an influence on the game and specifically in Australia that few people can match.

Ricky Ponting the batsman is certainly one of the best of his generation. Statistics aren’t the ultimate definer of greatness but they make it a damn sight easier to answer the question:

Test matches played: 133

Innings batted: 224

Not outs: 26

Test match runs: 11150

Highest score: 257

Average: 56.31

Balls faced in Test cricket: 18835

Strike rate: 59.16

100s: 38

50s: 46 (An outstanding conversion rate)

Catches: 152

From the statistics above, he’s certainly in the top five batsmen of his generation, including Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara. I think the other two places will be heavily contested depending on which part of the globe you come from. For the sake of argument, I would include Jacque Kallis and perhaps Mohammad Yousuf (remember when he was called Yosuf Youhana?) who even after a year out of Test cricket hit another hundred against Sri Lanka. Form is temporary, class is permanent. Talk about an under-statement.

I wonder how Ponting feels within the greater context of his team. He was an integral member of one of the strongest cricket teams seen in history. Opponents to this assertion argue that Steve Waugh’s Australia didn’t have the quality opponents to match them. I believe it was because they were so damn good that they made everyone else look ordinary, not the other way round.

A team sheet reading Hayden, Langer, Ponting, M Waugh, S Waugh, Martyn, Gilchrist, Warne, Kaspowitz (that choice is sentimental. He did a role and I loved to watch him bowl) Gillespie and McGrath is a damn sight different to what is 1-0 down to England in the Ashes.

Perhaps Ricky Ponting was done a dis-service by being instilled as captain when the Waugh era had come to a close. As a one-day captain he has proved his worth, claiming two World Cups in a row (T20 doesn’t count because Ponting doesn’t take that form of the game that seriously). It is in the Test arena that he has been shown to be human.

He was the first Australian captain to lose the Ashes since the 80s, the first Australian captain to lose a home series since 1993 and now might be the first Australian captain to lose two Ashes series in England since goodness knows when. His captaincy has been proved to be fallible, with Graeme Smith, Michael Vaughan, Sourav Ganguly (at his most combative best) and MS Dhoni all showing wilier skills on the field. Andrew Strauss hasn’t joined that club yet, but he might soon.

In part, the decline of his team has to do with the player change over that was inevitable, and it is impossible to replace seven or eight great players without feeling the chill of change. However, and this isn’t said out of malice, a better captain might have been able to tape over the cracks just that little bit longer.

Maybe I am being over-critical, considering that his team responded superbly by winning the return series in South Africa (and puncturing many a Protea ego along the way). But he is once again under the cosh, and with his attitude being questioned and his judgements not proving as sound as they could be.

Would you or I be able to do a better job? Maybe, maybe not. Even through all this, it must rake his mind being the last reminisence of a great side, with everything that has followed since his captaincy tenure began, proving a dramatic anti-climax to what he has achieved before.

Was he the right choice for the captaincy? I think, considering his relative young age compared to his peers in Waugh’s team, he was the only choice. He just hasn’t matched his batting feats with those of his captaincy.

His attitude and mutterings haven’t convinced me that he deserves to be held in the same company as Waugh and co. Granted, Jacque Kallis, his peer in terms of batting in this era (their statistics are startlingly close) hasn’t had the burden of captaincy thrust upon him.
Ricky Ponting is the last of the conquistadors, and now his age is showing as he struggles to raise a team that nowhere near matches the aura and respectability of the side he once formed part of. That is inevitable, and he is the wicket opposition teams want.

Does he seem satisfied however? I can’t be too sure and he still has time to change but what is worrying is that he is frustrated at times by his team’s inability to do the amazing as he was once used to. His expectation of himself and that of his team-mates might not be on the same page at the moment, but he still has time to re-write the story.

The scary thing is, as an Australian, you wouldn’t bet against him would you? I don’t like the man personally, but I respect him as a cricketer. How he is viewed by his peers is entirely up to him. Maybe he has one last challenge after all to rouse the sleeping great within him and shatter the glass ceiling of addled want lying above him.

We shall see. Ricky Ponting at his best