Towering over contemporary lions

Combative, industrious and fertile, RICKY PONTING is a cricketer of the highest calibre whose record and speed of scoring speak for themselves, writes PETER ROEBUCK.

Ricky Ponting's masterful display in the Durban Test match confirmed his rising stature in the game. Along the way he became only the second batsman to score hundreds in both innings of a Test match on three occasions. Previously Sunil Gavaskar had stood alone on this mark. Sunny performed his mighty feats during the course of a long and distinguished career spent blunting fierce attacks and carrying a billion expectations. Ponting has scored these centuries in the space of four months and eight Test matches. And he has made it all look as easy as opening a peanut.

Moreover the Australian's surge began at a low point in his career. After all Ponting returned from England with his tail between his legs. He had just become the first Australian captain to lose an Ashes series since 1986-87. His leadership had been criticised, his limitations had been exposed, his team had been defeated.

Past players were suggesting that Shane Warne ought to replace him as captain, and all and sundry were convinced that the period of Australian domination was over. Ponting seemed destined to preside over the fall of a cricketing empire. He did not say much. He just started batting and batting and batting.

Suddenly the suggestion that the diminutive Tasmanian might be the best batsman his country has produced since Don Bradman does not seem as farfetched. Not that records can ever tell the entire tale.

Cricket has too many variables for easy comparison to be made across the generations. Pitches, bats, balls, bowling, fixture lists, opposition and much else changes as the years pass, and it is not enough simply to study figures. Perhaps it is safer to say that he is the finest Australian batsman since Greg Chappell.

Regardless, it has been a magnificent achievement by an underestimated cricketer. Ponting has seldom been mentioned alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara as the supreme batsmen of the era. Unlike them, he did not seem to have been touched by angels. Yet he has many strengths of his own. It has helped that he has led a straightforward life and has been able to blend into a powerful side with a committed culture. All his energies have gone in this game. Magazines and advertisements have not been for him. Cricket, golf and fishing have been his capers.

On the field, too, Ponting has shown a rare ability to keep things simple. Where Lara has waxed and waned and Tendulkar has wrestled with adulthood, the Tasmanian has grown up quietly, gathering experience, replacing youth's folly whilst retaining its vigour.

He is the most practical of cricketers. At the crease he takes guard and faces the next ball with a remarkably clear mind. If it lands a fraction short he will pull it forward of square. The pull is the most Australian and destructive of strokes and Ponting plays it as well as anyone.

If the delivery is over-pitched he will drive it past the bowler or guide it through midwicket. Job completed, he settles down to face the next offering. It is not as easy as it sounds. Ponting can concentrate for long periods without apparent effort.

Considering his aggression, too, there is surprisingly little swagger in his work. He puts the ball away clinically and powerfully but without panache. When Dean Jones played a scintillating stroke, spectators felt that the shot expressed an entire character. Ponting just puts the ball away. No demons can be sensed in him. Nor is he a driven man. Certainly he is not a perfectionist.

Not that Ponting does not think about the game. Early in his career he was all at sea against spin. On his first tour to Sri Lanka he could hardly put bat on ball. But he watched and learnt and next time around he had the measure of pitches and bowling. He has matured into a versatile batsman, a player for all seasons, pitches and circumstances.

Certainly, he is an excellent man to have at first wicket down because he can adapt his game to meet any challenge. It is this adaptability that sets him apart from other contemporary lions such as Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid. These men have worked out their games and apply them come what may.

Ponting has several tempos and is happy to choose between them. As much could be told from his hundreds in Durban. On the first day he had to work hard for runs against an attack seeking to exploit a fresh surface and eager to test his patience. As the ball bounced unexpectedly, and with his opponents aiming outside off-stump, Ponting realised that caution was required. Far from trying to force the pace, he presented the straightest of bats and limited himself to drives down the ground and singles till the bowlers lost their sting. Here was an intelligent, disciplined and competitive cricketer playing precisely the innings needed in the circumstances.

Ponting was more his old self in the second innings. By then Australia had secured a lead and was pushing for victory. Ponting led the way with numerous crisp drives and superbly timed forces past point. He rediscovered his timing and was able to dictate terms almost from the first ball. His ability to score quickly from the outset gave Matthew Hayden time to settle. It was a consummate and match-winning performance.

Although lacking the artistry that sets Lara apart, and the perfection with which Tendulkar can intimidate bowlers, Ponting deserves to be mentioned alongside these great batsmen. Combative, industrious and fertile, he is a cricketer of the highest calibre whose record and speed of scoring speak for themselves.

COUNTERING SPIN

Ricky Ponting was peering down an unlit stretch on the 2001 tour of India. Undone by Harbhajan Singh's off-spin, the Aussie returned scores of 0, 6, 0, 0 and 11 in three Tests. Often clueless, he was coming down hard on the spinning ball and perishing to the close-in cordon. On pitches where the ball `gripped' for the spinners, Ponting needed to play with soft hands and sure footwork.

Under a siege mentally, Ponting's self-belief had given way to a sense of desperation. He was going through the 'horrors.'

Ponting has now put the traumatic and career-threatening period behind him as he lays a strong claim to being the best batsman in the world. Although injury ruled him out of the first three decisive Tests during Australia's triumphant campaign in India in 2004, `The Punter' has constructed a few significant knocks on Asian surfaces after the disappointment of 2001 when Australia and Steve Waugh failed to conquer the Final Frontier.

His 141 (Colombo) and 150 (Sharjah) against Pakistan in 2002 (both Tests were played on neutral venues) and his innings of 92 in Galle facing Muttiah Muralitharan & Co. in 2004 pointed to the Aussie's growing confidence in countering spin.

Indian off-spin great Erapalli Prasanna believes Ponting is still not a complete player against the spinning ball. "I would say he has only improved 50 per cent."

Travelling back to the 2001 series, Prasanna says, "He could not read the `doosra'. He used to charge down the pitch expecting an off-spinner and would be beaten by the delivery leaving him." He continued: "With experience, he is reading the `doosra' better. He is also playing with his right hand, which is the soft hand, more."

Ponting is stroking the ball with regularity between long on and long off with strong drives these days, cutting down on the high-risk cut and sweep strokes. "He is giving the spinners less chances but his real test will be on Indian pitches."

With 57 wickets in 13 Tests at 28.71 against Australia, including 25 in four Tests at 27.44 down under in 1967-68, Prasanna tormented the Aussies. He dwelt on the Australians' traditional vulnerability against quality off-spin. "They are aggressive. They attempt to come down the track and prevent the ball from turning. If you have the ability to hold the ball in the air with deceptive flight, they are in trouble."

And the genius, who was engaged in some stirring duels with Ian Chappell, would have `loved' to bowl at Ponting.

IN ELITE LIST

Ricky Ponting's twin hundreds in the second Test in Durban that helped Australia beat South Africa by 112 runs not only ensured that he remains on top of the LG ICC Player Rankings for Test batsmen but also gave him one of the highest ratings of all-time, putting him in the company of Donald Bradman. Ponting finished the Test with 937 rating points, and that mark has been bettered by only seven players in the history of the game. He now has a place among some illustrious company with Donald Bradman topping the list of all-time highest-rated players and Matthew Hayden, who also made a century in Durban, also featuring. Ponting's innings of 103 and 116 moved him 60 rating points clear of Hayden at the top of the Player Rankings for Test batsmen.

Rankings (top 10 batsmen): 1. Ricky Ponting (Aus), 2. Matthew Hayden (Aus), 3. Jacques Kallis (SA), 4. Inzamam-ul Haq (Pak), 5. Rahul Dravid (Ind), 6. Younis Khan (Pak), 7. Brian Lara (WI), 8. Mohammad Yousuf (Pak), 9. Marcus Trescothick (Eng), 10. Virender Sehwag (Ind).