From rebel to statesman

Ricky Ponting, as a cricketer, pioneered a unique classification — a cocktail of impish charm and ruggedness, restlessness and composure — writes Arun Venugopal.

Some ‘rebels’ — the ones dying to unlock their humongous potential — normally begin by beseeching the conformists to look at things from their point of view, presenting impassioned cases. Once realisation sets in that they aren’t being taken seriously, their next step is to give a darn about the apathy and stride majestically in their preferred direction.

And thereafter, it is only a matter of time before they rise, and rise the way Ricky Ponting has done over the last 17 years. Snarling, grimacing, and sporting nastiness like a fashion statement, Ponting — with a bulldog-like expression in tow — conquered the cricketing world on his own terms, yet evolved into a much-adored statesman with time. One, whose retirement, could induce tears in hardened, grown-up colleagues.

Wearing a carefully cultivated goatee, Ponting, at 20, arrived at the International cricketing scene in 1995. The naughty grin — complemented by the vigorous chewing of gum — and incessant chatter provided the first, subtle hint of what’s commonly known in Australia as the ‘larrikin streak,’ residing within Ponting.

Former Australian skipper Steve Waugh, in his autobiography Out of my Comfort Zone, narrates one of his earlier encounters with Ponting.

“I still recall his larrikin streak on his first overseas tour, in 1995, as a fresh-faced, goatee-wearing cocky upstart from the back blocks of Mowbray in northern Tasmania. ‘Punter’ was seated next to me on the plane and generously offered me some mouthwash. ‘Nice gesture, young fella,’ I thought to myself. And then I realise a jet of foam was engulfing my yawning mouth. The little smartarse had stitched me up with shaving foam and had a cheesy grin more mischievous than that of the Luna Park entrance. I had to admire his nerve and ingenuity,” wrote Waugh.

But it wasn’t always “well received” as Waugh himself discovered three-and-a-half years later in Pakistan. “With a couple of Coronas relaxing and controlling the conversation, Punter began to tread on touchy ground as he told Slats [Michael Slater] he was always going to get out in the 90s because he started slogging whenever he got there. What started as a friendly chat with humorous banter soon escalated into a potentially bruising encounter, so being the vice-captain I tried to diffuse the situation with a half-hearted laugh and a suggestion they change the subject.”

It was during that phase that alcohol threatened to snuff out Ponting’s promising career. During the 1998 tour of India, he was engaged in a scuffle with security guards at a Kolkata disco. Ponting was in bigger trouble nine months later when he was punched in the eye after an incident at a Sydney bar. Looking to douse his sadness after being dropped from the Test side, he ended up incurring a fine and a three-match ban.

Australian cricketers came to be divided into two categories — ‘Julios’ (named after Julio Iglesias) and ‘Nerds’. The Julios are the flamboyant, fun-loving personalities who are obsessed with grooming themselves. As for the Nerds, they are the ‘regular blokes.’ Like Allan Border, Mark Taylor, and Waugh. Ponting — whose nickname ‘Punter’ was in sync with his adventurous self — belonged to the Nerds. In reality, Ponting pioneered a unique classification — a cocktail of impish charm and ruggedness, restlessness and composure.

Just as people began sighing at how he was turning out to be a wasted talent, Ponting fronted up to his misgivings. “I have to admit to myself that I have a problem with alcohol at times and I intend to overcome this problem. It’s up to me to look after myself properly and make sure I never get into those bad situations again.”

And, to his eternal credit, he did live up to his words and set about mending himself. He continued to play the game hard, though, hustling his opponents and not giving an inch. Ponting did push the limits of gamesmanship on occasions, combining his supreme batting skills with bloody-mindedness. The Indians got a taste of that during the infamous Sydney Test in 2008.

Certain aspects of his behaviour continued to remain unsavoury. Ponting was charged by the ICC for damaging a television set in the team dressing room at Ahmedabad. He has also had several run-ins with the umpires; the lengthy confrontation with Aleem Dar in the Melbourne Test during the 2010 Ashes series further dented his not-so-encouraging reputation.

Nevertheless, it can’t be denied that, as captain, he matured considerably, mentoring his mates with genuine affection. But because his transition from a rebel to a leader was less obvious and, therefore, harder to detect, it didn’t attract much discussion. That said, Ponting’s coming of age as a statesman, when the team was reconciling with the retirements of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Adam Gilchrist, and Matthew Hayden, can never be underestimated. Just ask his moist-eyed troops.