The risk that is Ricky Ponting

ROHIT BRIJNATH

VICTORY is built on risk, triumph on gambles, success on chance. But equally, so is defeat. One big hit turns into a courageous winning six, and men are congratulated for their daring and defiance; the same shot, caught at the boundary by a fielder, is described as intemperate, and men are censured for their foolishness.

Like the boundary rope, this is all a very thin line. But there must be an attempt to cross it. What will work cannot be guaranteed, but there is a thrill in the chase, an appeal in the very uncertainty of the journey. The timid are rarely heroes.

All this comes to mind with the elevation of Ricky Ponting to the Australian one-day captaincy (and presumably, the Test captaincy eventually). It is a move that suggests Australia's selectors are not coy, timorous men. If they have been foolish, we shall see.

Ponting is a fair choice, but he is also a risk. Shane Warne has captained well before, his cricketing savvy apparent. Adam Gilchrist is a fearless cricketer and a fine man, a combination of virtues sport sees too little of these days. Ponting seems a man neither here nor there. He will have to find his direction quickly.

As a fielder, Ponting roams the ground like an impatient predator. His energy makes his contemporaries blush and jugglers go white at his dexterity. Once a sign at a World Cup read, "Three quarters of the world is covered by water, the rest by Jonty Rhodes". Rhodes still has that quarter, but Ponting covers the rest.

He is an accomplished batsman, but you think he should own a finer adjective. Greatness and him are still relative strangers, he has touched it, but not held on. His Test average is 43.78, his one-day average 41.37, and he has been too long on the pitch (seven years) without brutally emphasising his presence.

He can pull a ball with a ballet dancer's effortless swivel, and then walk into a front foot shot presenting footwork of unparalleled ugliness. He can win a match, next series collapse into mediocrity, and collect 'A' and then reply with two centuries. He is a gifted batsman in search of consistency, a pretty sketch not a powerful painting. Mostly though this has come in Test cricket; in the shorter game his resume is more powerful, his brilliance more frequently advertised.

All through Australia, critics and commentators alike have praised him as an able thinker, a sharp tactician. Gilchrist admitted that when he was stand-in captain he would turn to "Rick for his input." His former captain, Steve Waugh, has endorsed his instincts as well.

But Ponting's challenge lies elsewhere, beyond strokes with the bat and ideas as a thinker. As batsman and tactician he endures only passing scrutiny; it is as a man where the question marks lie.

Captains in football and hockey run out for the toss, a handshake and wear armbands. Not much more. In cricket, sporting leadership finds its purest and widest definitions. It asks for responsibility, tact, discipline, impeccable conduct, sensitivity, vision, worldliness, and this is but the beginning.

There is a brittleness to Ponting, a sense of steam escaping from between the gap in his teeth, that suggests a fellow on the edge, always uncomfortably close to indiscretion. He sweats aggression; sometimes gravitas is helpful too. Is such a fellow ready to play statesman in South Africa amidst the turmoil of black-and white selection, not complain about the absence of a cold beer in Pakistan, appreciate the confusion and beauty of India's culture?

Much will be asked of Ponting. Patience and sobriety for starters. He must manage a searching press and accept outrageous criticism as stoically as he must exaggerated praise; he must strain for success on the field and raise his team to fever-pitch, yet hold his temper and dignity; and then he must change into a dark suit, sip cocktails in wood-panelled boardrooms and exchange wisdom with older men worried about a split in world cricket state. A once rambunctious fellow must find this difficult balance.

Throughout the past days, there has been continued mention of Ponting's youth. But he is 27, and perhaps as some men are older than their years, some are younger too. One word for it is boyishness, another is immaturity. Some years ago Ponting was knocked unconscious at a nightclub in Sydney, and rose with a black eye and admissions of an alcohol problem. In Calcutta, he had an altercation at a nightclub. On the field, and the Indians know this well, he can be simply unpleasant.

A man cannot be held prisoner forever by his past, but at the same time he must demonstrate he is re-making himself. Ponting it is said is wiser: he will need to be.

He must display he is grown up, collected, learned. Not all of this can happen instantly, and perhaps we severely misjudge him (it is not the first time seemingly impressive captains have turned out to lack the requisite fibre, and vice versa). He has a head-start with his team who believe in him but will still require convincing. But it is the outside world whose scepticism he must allay.

He says that when he was suspended for two one-day internationals after the nightclub incident, he awoke with a new realisation. That he did not like the fact that cricket had been taken away from him. "Playing cricket for Australia," he said, "I was taking things for granted a little bit, and realising 'Geez, I, may never get this back."

His selection has been a disputed one. Not necessarily because of any particular inadequacy of his, but because of the affection and respect Waugh had collected. Every time Ponting stumbles, comparisons, unfair at that, will emerge and the name Waugh spoken. Worse, before Waugh was Mark Taylor, and these are all hefty boots to fill.

It scarcely helps that Australia, who seemed beyond such mortal matters, are struggling, and the cricketing air Down Under is laced with all manner of tension. The Waughs are greyer; Lee tempestuous; Hayden-Langer too good to last, a stumble on its way; the all-rounders misfiring. Fresh faces in the one-day team might prove even more unsettling, but then again, perhaps it is exactly what is required: a new squad, a new start, a new era, for a new captain.

The Australian cricket captain, even of the one-dayers, is a title of some significance. Not all men have its measure. Ponting is being sized up and no one is completely certain if he fits. It is a risk, yes, a gamble, for sure, but a determined man who races greyhounds knows all about such odds.

Ricky Ponting wants this job, believes, possibly fairly, that he has earned it; now he must prove he is worthy of it.