Man with a destructive bat

Ricky Ponting has had such success in the recent past that Sachin Tendulkar’s records for the most Test runs and centuries remain in his sights. Tendulkar is a year and eight months Ponting’s senior, but has had a second wind. It promises to be an absorbing race, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

Mike Brearley, the former England captain and one of cricket’s foremost minds, once made the point that Colin Cowdrey and Bishan Bedi’s athleticism was “expressed almost exclusively in what they did best”. Not the most elegant movers in the field, they nevertheless managed great physical beauty when batting and bowling respectively.

Unlike Cowdrey and Bedi, Ricky Ponting’s athleticism isn’t narrowly confined; it’s well rounded. Yet it isn’t always readily apparent. Since Ponting’s batting doesn’t markedly deviate from the canon of classical batsmanship, the role athleticism plays in his batting is often overlooked, if detected in the first place. (The athleticism in his fielding, on the other hand, is obvious and remarked upon often.)

Why a discussion on Ponting’s athleticism is pertinent — or indeed current — is because: a) He recently passed 11,000 Test runs; and b) At 34, the Australian is at a stage of his career when every failure is investigated for evidence of fading eyesight and slowing reflexes. The accomplishment demands he be looked at in a different light, a light hitherto not trained on him. An examination of his batting, aimed at detecting a slide in standard, necessitates an exploration of his physical genius. Both requirements converge to a discussion of Ponting’s athleticism. Where Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara are tricky to track, Ponting seems simpler. The co-ordinates of Lara’s batting changed through his career although the essence remained largely untouched. The same applies to Tendulkar. The way they set up at the crease, the way they address the ball: each varied so subtly (and, paradoxical as it may seem, visibly) over time that it’s impossible to legitimately compare their games from different years.

One needs no more than a profitable couple of hours on YouTube to realise that the Tendulkar of 1992 and the Tendulkar of 2007, to pick two random years, can’t be contrasted. They’re two entirely different batsmen, but not in the widely believed sense that the former was an intuitive attacker, the latter, a method player. They do things so differently that it is not possible to detect if it’s a step up or a step down, or if it’s of any consequence.

There is, however, a greater degree of fidelity in Ponting’s batsmanship; his is a style that has aged well thus far, changing little over the years. Few batsmen have used their bodies as effectively as Ponting. Some have had better hands, some have had better wrists, and others, better feet. But in Ponting everything comes together, lower body driving upper body, forward stride both counterbalancing back-lift and generating bat-speed. Someone like Michael Clarke is sensitive to the passing of time, his method unduly governed by hand-speed.

Ponting’s all-round athleticism, which has helped build a wholesome style, distributes the risks, so to speak. Among batsmen of this era, only Tendulkar has been more complete. But it could be a trick of the mind for there’s a bristly, unshaven quality to Ponting’s batting, which doesn’t compare as well, aesthetically, to the Indian’s immaculate style. Matters of style apart, the key question about Ponting’s current batsmanship is: Is his eye as keen as ever? There has been nothing — no, not the supposed onset of a more measured style — to suggest otherwise.

In focus because of Ponting is Allan Border. “Those two could be two peas out of the same pod,” said Sir Ian Botham. “The way they play, their doggedness, they’re tough; they get stuck in and once they’re in, you need dynamite to remove them.” The former Australian strongman has been the subject of much revisionism in recent times. Border’s legend has not merely endured; it has grown. Several experts who have observed Australian cricket over the last three decades place Border marginally above Ponting. It’s not a judgment based on physical talent. Ponting is more richly endowed as batsman than Border was, although it must be said that the latter is often given the short shrift when talent is debated.

Border, for instance, was a better player of spin than Ponting, whose hard hands and anxious lunges early in an innings do him a disservice. Balance, precise footwork, and soft hands are rare skills — but discussions of Border’s talent are often subsumed under the broader and more romantic narrative that he made it with only three strokes. Border moreover played at a time when Australia struggled miserably and when every country had exceptional fast- or swing-bowling talent. He did battle against Imran Khan, Sir Richard Hadlee, Kapil Dev and Sir Ian Botham, and as if that weren’t enough, he had to face the might of the West Indian fast bowlers. And this, keep in mind, during a time when the wickets were more challenging and the bats less empowering.

It would have been fascinating to watch Ponting, modern cricket’s most destructive batsman against pace, switch places with Border. Could he have dictated terms as he does now, counter-attacking in a crisis? Those that give Ponting the edge over Border make this very point: Border, by nature and circumstance, was a brooding match-saver; Ponting is a match-winner. (After more than a decade in world-beating sides, it will be interesting to see if Ponting remains an agenda-setter in a team in transition.)

Although remarkably assured against straight-up pace, Ponting has appeared vulnerable to the ball swinging or cutting into him, for it messes with his forward stride and forces him to play across his front pad. But his offensive repertoire forbids all but the best from such an attack — capable off either foot, his array of strokes feed each other. He owns the most emphatic pull stroke in world cricket, and employs it against anything even marginally short.

Ponting also possesses excellent drives either side of the bowler, so the full ball that inevitably follows is put away as well. Once Ponting is set nothing but sustained quality can shift him. It’s little wonder he has an outstanding all-round batting record, averaging over 50 against every country but India (47.02). His record in India (an average of 20.84 from 21 innings) is the only soft spot in an iron-clad career summary. But the overall excellence of the record masks an undistinguished beginning. Ponting averaged only 38.62 after his first 30 Tests and had made only four centuries.

The series against Pakistan in 1999 was when it began to turn. Undone by Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis for a pair at Hobart, Ponting was under severe pressure when the Perth Test got underway. To make matters worse he found himself walking to the crease with Australia on 54 for four. In distress champions often find reserves of skill and strength even they didn’t suspect existed, and Ponting, forced into natural expression, made a match-winning 197 in 288 balls. He has averaged over 60 since.

Ponting’s transition from number six, where he served his apprenticeship, to number three wasn’t as smooth as is now believed. He had five innings at one-drop after just three Tests in 1996-97 and returned 137 runs (with one score of 88). He slotted in behind the brothers Waugh thereafter, and it wasn’t until 2001 that he moved back to number three. He failed to pass 17 in five innings before making 144 and 72 at Leeds. He has had such success subsequently that Tendulkar’s records for the most Test runs and centuries remain in his sights. Tendulkar is a year and eight months Ponting’s senior, but has had a second wind. It promises to be an absorbing race.