April 20, 2006

“Punter” leaves the competition panting

By H Natarajan

Too often in recent years great batsmen have come in for comparison with the greatest of all – Sir Donald Bradman. Sunil Gavaskar, Viv Richards, Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Matthew Hayden….The fact is that Sir Don’s figures are beyond compare. As Vasu Paranjpe once said in his inimitable way: “In any cricketing comparison, Sir Don has to be left out. The great man’s head would go out if you try to fit him in the same frame as the others!”

The latest to draw such comparison is Ricky Ponting. The Tasmanian’s precocity was first spotted by his grand mum, who gifted him a T-shirt that proclaimed, “Australia’s future player.” Call it vision or fantasy, but within nine years the boy had made his first-class debut, age 17, and earned the baggy green three years later.

Whatever Ponting does, he does it with alacrity. Be it the transition from cricket with the boys in the next lane to first-class cricket or from first-class to Tests, while making a verbal point or in the way he struts around on the field. His impact on the international scene was also swift – 96 in his first outing, an innings that was short-circuited by a dubious leg before verdict. Exactly a decade later, Ponting occupies pole position on the International Cricket Council (ICC) rankings in Tests as well as One-Day Internationals.

If there is one commonality between Ponting and Rahul Dravid, otherwise polar opposites in most things on and off the field, it’s the late and almost grudging acknowledgment they have earned despite the value they got for their respective countries. While Dravid remained in the shadows of the more flamboyant players like Sachin Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag, Ponting was dwarfed by the likes of Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden at various stages of his career. By raising their levels of excellence, both Dravid and Ponting today command the respect of the cricketing cognoscenti as not merely the finest batsmen for their national teams but also the two of the best in the world.

Ponting’s passage in history is the stuff legends are made of. If one splits his Test career into two, it makes interesting read. Till the end of 2001, he had scored 3182 runs in 52 Tests at an average of 44.19; in the 53 matches since, till the first innings of the second Test against Bangladesh in the ongoing series, he has scored 5610 runs, with at an average of 71. It’s in this rapacious mood that he has scored century in each innings of a Test match on three occasions to equal the feat of Sunil Gavaskar. Of course, there is a small difference: Gavaskar’s scored them in a span of eight years; Ponting got it in eight Tests!

His quantum of runs in a calendar - 1544 runs in 2005 and 1503 in 2003 – is bettered only by Viv Richards’s record 1710 runs in 1976. Ponting has already scored 802 from six Tests in 2006! Ponting’s effort in 2003 came at over 100-plus average – something only Sir Don and Sir Garry Sobers have managed in the list of those who amassed 1000 Test runs in a calendar year.
Few batsmen in modern cricket play pace as well as Ponting. A predominantly back-foot player, he is very strong essaying pull, hook and square cut. His home-away record is also healthy: he has got 16 hundreds at home and 15 overseas and has a 50-plus average playing in Australia and away. If there is one correction that he would certainly like to make it’s his record against India in India, where he averages an eye-sore 12.28 from eight Tests.

Considering Tendulkar’s litany of medical woes that is having a direct bearing on his productivity and Brian Lara’s inconsistency in the twilight of his career, Ponting, at 31, promises to post a new high to the most runs and hundreds in Tests. He is truly in mind-boggling form, having scored 11 hundreds in his last 21 Tests. The last of which got him into the exclusive club of batsmen who have scored hundreds in each of the Test playing nation.

When Ponting got the Australian captaincy from Steve Waugh, ahead of vice-captain Adam Gilchrist and senior pro Shane Warne, the appointment was not greeted with universal hosannas. Ponting’s track record has not been exemplary when it came to discipline. He had a drinking problem, one that got him into bar fisticuffs more than once. One such incident was in the same hotel that I was billeted during a Test match and thus knew what unfolded late that night. In many ways he is an embodiment of the quintessential “Ugly Australian”. Remember his vituperative snarl at Javagal Srinath after the bowler, in the true spirit of sportsman spirit, went up to the batsman felled by his bouncer? Ponting is very much from the Ian Chappell school of thought. When Adam Gilchrist set an example by walking, Ponting declared that he would not encourage his players to walk. In Trent Bridge Test last year, he let out a fusillade of abuse at the Englishmen after substitute fielder Gary Pratt ran him out. The flying off the handle, England coach Duncan Fletcher opined, was “the moment when it became clear that England were going to regain the Ashes". Ponting still gets into the wrong side of the law – the most recent being the Chittagong Test against Bangladesh.

As a captain, however, he has led Australia from the front. No questions about that. And many of his knocks have come at decisive moments or in crisis situations. A case in point is the hundred he got in the last World Cup, which single-handedly demolished India. That he is the only cricketer to have won the Allan Border Medal twice is a tribute to his stature in the world champion team he leads. And though he had the mortification of losing the Ashes, he was named “Wisden Cricketer of the Year” recently.

The man they call “Punter” has indeed left the competition panting!

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