He was always on the prowl

Ricky Ponting’s physical genius was better articulated in his fielding than his batting. By S. Ram Mahesh.

Watching Ricky Ponting field wasn’t for the faint of heart — or the delicate of stomach. Such was his ability to combust of a sudden that batsman and spectator frequently skipped beats. But did he have to hawk into his hands and rub the spit in before nearly every ball? Surely his palms were adhesive enough to begin with?

Sanitary matters aside, Ponting’s fielding was without flaw. Cricket certainly hasn’t seen a finer all-round fieldsman: he was masterful at point or mid-wicket, in the slips, under the helmet, on the boundary.

There might have been marginally better catchers and marginally better stoppers — and these are thin, subjective margins, a concession, if you will, to the unknowable — but no one hit the stumps like Ponting. And he did it, even when pressured, with a consistency that challenged the natural law.

Several things stood out in a Ponting run-out. All of them pertain to speed and precision, of thought and action.

The first was how quickly he got into a position to throw. He had such body-balance and such anticipation that he didn’t dive unless he absolutely had to. And even when he went to ground, he regained his feet easily. To take the ball in hand and align the hips and shoulders at the target was for Ponting the work of an instant. There was no wasted movement; here was extreme athleticism clinically expressed.

The second was how swiftly he saw the play. Whether it was he who had created the confusion, either by reputation or by deception (he was an adept at selling the idea that he was deeper than he actually was), or whether the batsmen had needed no goading into idiocy, Ponting knew the situation at once. So not only was he ready to throw almost immediately but he had also, in this time, decided where and how to throw it. He had, in essence, bought time to take aim, steady his head and level his eyes, if possible.

The third was how speedily he got rid of the ball. He didn’t innovate the side-arm throw, but he made it his own — an under-the-shoulder, whippy snap of the forearm and wrist that took little time to set up.

He was also an expert of the diving pick-up-and-throw, which used the momentum of falling forward to release the ball. Both throwing techniques saved the fielder seconds and cost the batsman inches. When he wasn’t as close to the stumps, he went over the shoulder, legs and hips driving the throw. He played the percentages from here, finding the wicketkeeper if he could, shying at the stumps only if no one was over them.

Ponting’s accuracy appeared preternatural — there’s no doubt he had a singular talent for it — but it was also something he constantly worked on. There’s nothing like repetition directed at a target to groove the body’s tendencies, and Ponting took training very seriously. There was actually a period when he wasn’t hitting the stumps as often. He made target throwing a priority; to no one’s surprise, the accuracy returned.

Ponting has a spectacular highlights reel of catches as well. Jonty Rhodes got great hang-time; Mark Waugh made the horribly difficult look absurdly easy: Ponting had something of each but his identity as a catcher was that he simply caught them by any means necessary. He preferred the Australian reverse cup in the slips, often crouching low to take with his fingers pointing to the sky what others will have taken normally. In this way, he eliminated that area of indecision, between navel and shoulder, where slip catchers aren’t sure how to align their hands. He was safe one-handed when stretched and impenetrable if he got two hands to it.

The effect of Ponting’s fielding on Australia’s success can’t be overstated. He was a genuine source of wickets, for he even when he wasn’t running people out and catching them, he was helping the bowlers build pressure by saving runs and preventing the turnover of strike. He forced other exceptional fielders such as Andrew Symonds, Michael Clarke, and Michael Hussey to raise their standards. Teams that faced Australia were often overwhelmed in the field, weighed down by the realisation that they had to work twice as hard for their runs and that their first mistake was often their last.

Indeed it can be ventured that Ponting’s physical genius was better articulated in his fielding than his batting. Ponting, the batsman, was a dominant world-beater in his prime, a gritty struggler other times; Ponting, the fielder, was predatory from beginning to end.