This Tasmanian has made it big

HOW time flies! It was only in the Australian summer of 1995-96 that a young Tasmanian with dreams in his eyes and fire in his veins, took his first few steps in Test cricket.

S. DINAKAR

Ricky Ponting addresses a press conference after being named Australia's Test captain. The appointment will take effect after the current series against India, when Steve Waugh has planned to quit. -- Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

HOW time flies! It was only in the Australian summer of 1995-96 that a young Tasmanian with dreams in his eyes and fire in his veins, took his first few steps in Test cricket.

The Mark Taylor-led Australians were taking on the Sri Lankans in Perth and Ricky Ponting was making his Test debut. Even as he walked into the ground, the 20-year-old Tasmanian must have surely been conscious of some great names beside him...

Shane Warne, Ian Healy, David Boon... and Steve Waugh.

And now, barely eight seasons following his momentous first Test, where a century eluded him by just four runs, Ponting finds himself named as the successor to Steve Waugh, Test cricket's most successful captain ever.

Captaincy has several challenges. Building the side from scratch, much like what Allan Border managed to accomplish in the 80s and the 90s, is among them. Turning his men into a bunch of world-beaters, exactly what the tactically shrewd Mark Taylor did when he took over from Border, is another one of captaincy's testing tasks. Not just maintaining the reign at the top, but taking his side to another level of dominance is what Steve Waugh achieved.

Steve Waugh, who still has unfinished business against the Indians, is, and Border and Taylor were, not just outstanding captains in their own different ways, but also fine leaders of men. They could rally their sides behind them.

With 40 victories in 53 Tests, Steve Waugh, who has a humane side to his persona off the field, is ruthless in the playing arena. Indeed, he has often spoken about the need to destroy the `enemy,' both, physically and psychologically.

Whether battling it out in the middle in that favourite fire-fighting mode of his or playing those engrossing mind games with his opponents, Steve Waugh has relished the pressures and the responsibilities of captaincy. In fact, he has thrived on them.

Ponting has also shown the cricketing world that he can handle crisis situations, at least in the ODI arena, where he has come across as a forceful, single-minded captain, relishing the big-stage.

And they do not come any bigger than the World Cup, where the Tasmanian, adroitly led his team through a demanding phase, where the campaign could so easily have gone wrong.

The state of shock that engulfed the Aussie camp after Shane Warne left the competition under a drug cloud just a day before the critical opening game against Pakistan, gave way to hope and determination as the men from down under regrouped under Ponting.

An aggressive batsman, Ponting has a glittering Test record. -- Pic. DANIEL BEREHULAK/ GETTY IMAGES-

Importantly, Ponting was able to motivate the younger bunch on the fringe during the tournament, and men like Andrew Symonds did make a significant contribution to the Aussie cause.

The Aussie juggernaut rolled on in the World Cup, unstopped, and the skipper himself fired with the willow when it mattered the most, in the summit clash, with an explosive hundred.

However, Test cricket, given its various dimensions and layers, represents a different challenge altogether. Even when someone skippers an awesome side such as Australia, that has made winning a habit.

The rich Steve Waugh legacy has to be maintained and Ponting has quite a job before him. Apart from making sure that the Aussies keep ruling on the field, he will have to ensure that the side continues to earn as much respect.

Steve Waugh may have been a sledger in the first half of his career, and could be guilty of not stopping his men from mouthing words aimed at distracting batsmen, but he carried the enormous goodwill of the cricketing community with him for his basic qualities as a player — that passion to succeed, integrity and legendary fighting qualities.

But then, even Steve Waugh, when he stepped into Mark Taylor's shoes for the 1999 tour of the Caribbean, found life hard in the early stages of his Test captaincy. Quite naturally comparisons were made, and Waugh's ways as a skipper were considered too predictable against Taylor's more spontaneous, instinctive style.

It was only in the World Cup in England — soon after that Caribbean Test campaign which was eventually drawn 2-2 — did Steve Waugh manage to turn the corner. It was when the Aussies, who appeared tired and jaded and began the competition rather disastrously, faced elimination in the Super Sixes, that the captain lifted his side from the depths of despair with a courageous hundred that had `character' written all over it.

That innings was the moment of truth for Steve Waugh as captain and he never really looked back after that, even if the narrow defeat at the hands of India in that gripping Chennai Test of 2001 ensured that the `Final Frontier' remained unconquered during his reign.

The aberration in India apart, Australia under Steve Waugh became the ultimate mean machine in cricket, relentlessly crushing rivals, invariably blanking them in series. Waugh, whose aggressive mind-set saw to it that the Aussies seldom missed out on an opportunity to `kill,' was now a celebrated captain.

Like Steve Waugh, Ponting plays his cricket hard and is among the most ferocious of batsmen to play the cut and the pull. However, despite a glittering Test record of 5115 runs in 71 matches at 52.73 (18 hundreds), before the series against India, he has revealed a soft side to his batting.

The Tasmanian's Test record in India — a mere 149 runs in seven matches at 12.41 — doesn't speak much about his ability to handle spinners on surfaces where the ball `grips'. Worse, he has, mostly in vain, resorted to desperate means to overcome the hurdle.

This is where he would do well to learn from Steve Waugh's famous resolve and the great warrior's will to dig in deep when the going became tough. It is the same resilience that Ponting will need to display as captain during adverse times in unfamiliar conditions. In Steve Waugh's case, captaincy is an extension of his batting, where defeat is an unfamiliar word.

To Ponting's credit, he managed to get the best out of his inexperienced attack in the recent TVS ODI tri-series, where Nathan Bracken & Co carried the day for Australia in unhelpful conditions, against two competitive sides, India and New Zealand.

The man, who got into rather serious difficulties with the establishment in the early days of his career, that included a drunken brawl at a Sydney nightclub, has put those problems behind him.

Now, he is the chosen one by the Australian selectors! How time flies!