He led the way he batted

Ricky Ponting’s explosive batting and his hard-nosed captaincy were perhaps in keeping with the tough-as-nails Aussie approach to sport and life, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A slow decline may have marred Ricky Ponting’s last days as an international cricketer, but in his pomp, he was a regal destroyer of rival reputations and his presence in the pantheon of batting greats is set in stone. There was ruthlessness to the way he batted, and that trait permeated his captaincy too. Ask India about the mauling he unleashed in the World Cup final in South Africa in 2003. “I can never forget his hundred in that final. He finished us and that hurt,” Anil Kumble said.

Ponting’s explosive batting and his hard-nosed captaincy were perhaps in keeping with the tough-as-nails Aussie approach to sport and life. Once, sitting inside Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium, the legendary Australian wicketkeeper Rodney Marsh had a good laugh when asked about the ‘Ugly Aussie’ nickname. “Sticks and stones hurt, but names don’t, mate,” he quipped. Ponting perhaps subscribed to the same philosophy.

In a way, Ponting continued the fiery leadership tradition that preceded him. An Australian team batting hard, bowling fast and sledging incessantly has been a stereotype over the last two decades. The toughening of the nation’s stance on the cricketing globe actually gained a huge fillip when Allan Border became captain after a crying Kim Hughes departed in 1984.

Border banned the beer with rivals after play and looked fiercely inward to prop up his men, who were lost for comfort after the retirements of Greg Chappell, Dennis Lillee and Marsh. Once Border even refused water to Kapil Dev, who was distraught after his shot had killed a seagull.

The ‘winning-at-all-costs’ approach softened a bit under Mark Taylor though he was equally successful, and then came along Steve Waugh, who raised the stakes. Ponting stepped into those big shoes and it helped that after Sir Don Bradman, he was the finest Australian batsman.

Like Imran Khan, Ponting could lead from the front. Though Waugh had done his grandstanding farewell, Ponting still inherited a team that was high on class. The run of victories continued unhindered with the likes of Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne at his service. The 48 Test victories under his helm is a world record. Add to it two World Cup triumphs — 2003 and 2007 — and you get a captain who has left a colossal footprint.

Yet, the vagaries of form over the last two years, the retirements of his revered mates, the grim pangs of transition and the three Ashes defeats have tended to define the greatest captain, at least statistically, the game has so far seen. Part of that conundrum lies largely with Ponting, as he never cultivated the elder statesman image that Waugh donned despite his tough-as-nails persona. And since Ponting started out as a talented but brash youngster, who made news both on the pitch and at unruly pubs, his failure to keep his head later as captain meant that it was easy to slot him as a man who failed to suppress the intemperate lad within him.

The Sydney Test in 2008 against India was his lowest point. Australia won the match, but set the lowest standards in player-behaviour and the captain failed to play the diplomat. The most damning indictment came from the rival captain, Kumble, who said: “Only one team is playing in the spirit of the game.” Worse was to follow when the late Peter Roebuck wrote that Ponting should be sacked as captain and described the Australian team as ‘a pack of wild dogs’.

It was a fact that unlike Border, who unearthed his young core group of David Boon, Geoff Marsh, Dean Jones, Steve Waugh, Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes to cope with transition, Ponting failed to adapt to the demands of an evolving team. It was a point raised by Kumble when he said, “When his key players retired, I personally feel that he didn’t change the way he approached the game.”

The results may not have met his expectations, but it is never easy to shepherd a team in transition as M. S. Dhoni is learning the hard way. However, Ponting never lost the respect of his colleagues, and when his successor Michael Clarke turned up at the WACA with damp eyes, it spoke volumes of a past leader who remained a team-player all through his career.

Most importantly, Ponting remained true to his aggressive self all through. It was an attribute Warne acknowledged a few years ago when he wrote: “He (Ponting) could be a bit fiery in his younger days, and he still has a wiry strength about him. He doesn’t stand on ceremony or worry about reputations if he feels strongly about something.” Ponting the batsman will always be a benchmark, but his captaincy that coped with varying challenges should never be overlooked because even that aspect revealed the many layers that shaped his personality.