March 17, 2007

The Big Fight: Sunil Gavaskar vs Ricky Ponting

By H Natarajan

It’s not for the first time in his career that Ricky Ponting has exhibited himself as petulant, irreverent, poor role model and a horrible ambassador for the game of cricket and his country. His diatribe against one of the living legends underlines all of the above and much more.

For all his indisputable greatness as one of the greatest batsmen the game has seen, Ponting will go down in history as a leader whose obnoxious behavior is eminently forgotten. While Steve Waugh, Ponting’s predecessor as Australian captain, played the game as hard as any from his country, he left the game with his head and honour both high. And though Waugh had enough cricketing reasons to feel most bitter about India, he rose in the eyes of the world as statesmen with his highly laudable philanthropic work for children of leprosy patients in Calcutta. The inmates at “Udayan” call him Steveda and, reportedly, when India played Australia in the 2003 World Cup final, they cheered for Australia!

Ponting may have found Sunil Gavaskar’s comment hurtful – even unacceptable. But Gavaskar had every right to comment as a media person. It’s another matter altogether if Gavaskar should have taken a moral high ground because of his own flare-ups as a player. Firstly, is it necessary for Ponting to answer every comment in the media, even if it’s by a former player? And the Press and TV Boxes are full of ex-players these days. Secondly, should he have got into a verbal duel in the media that would distract him and his team from an important assignment at hand? Thirdly, and most importantly, where was the need to get personal?

Gavaskar’s opinion was on the Australian team behaviour - something that has come in for copious flak from teams all over the world. It’s painfully evident that the Aussies have been rude, vulgar, abusive and even racial. They have also been in the midst of several incidents where they have challenged the umpiring in an overtly aggressive manner. The litany against them is long. Ponting himself has been guilty of most – if not all - of the transgressions mentioned above.

It was just months ago when the world watched with horror the unedifying sight of Ponting summoning the Indian Cricket Board chief, Sharad Pawar, by wagging his finger to come up to him and hand over the trophy. Almost immediately, Damien Martyn capped his skipper’s indecorous act by shoving the Central Minister off before the ceremonious rituals could be gone through.

Sledging is one thing and getting insanely personal is something else. It’s amazing that an Aussie has still not got socked on the field. The Glenn McGrath-Ramnaresh Sarwan fracas may well have ended in an unprecedented on-field violence had it been someone who was more hot-headed and someone who matched McGrath physically than the West Indian batsman.

That he has been one of the most censured captains contributes to his discredit. But he missed the point – or chose to miss it – to attack the Indian team’s track record and, incredibly, Gavaskar’s credentials as a player!

Now that Ponting’s riposte brought batsmanship into the equation, let’s dwell on it a bit. Though he played alongside Shane Warne for the major part of his international career, his record on the slow turners in India is a monumental embarrassment. Ponting should humbly reflect back on his scores on three tours to India where he managed to cross 18 just once. An average of 12 from 11 outings underlines his misery against the Indian spinners.

Ponting’s vicious salvo on Gavaskar shows not just his lack of reverence for a cricketing legend but also exposes his abominable sense of history.

What does Ponting mean by, “We all know the way he played his cricket, don't we?"

In sharp contrast to his (Ponting’s) own record in Gavaskar’s backyard, Gavaskar has Test hundreds in Brisbane, Perth, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney and against the likes of Jeff Thomson, Craig McDermott, Merv Hughes and Bruce Reid. It may interest Ponting that these Test hundreds have come in 11 Tests - exactly the same number he had played against India in India!

It may also be of educational - if not historical – interest to Ponting that Gavaskar scored 13 hundreds against the most fearsome and sustained four-pronged pace attack that the game has seen. Those 13 hundreds have come against the likes of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall and Joel Garner. When the dreaded Windies pace attack, at their pomp, made even survival difficult for batsmen, Gavaskar blazed away to a 90-ball hundred to score his 29th Test century to draw level with the greatest – Sir Don Bradman.

In condemning Ponting’s behavior, I am not for a moment trying to be oblivious to Gavaskar’s lapses that the Australian captain wants us to look at. Yes, Gavaskar was wrong, despite the provocation and the alleged abuses, for letting his anger the better of him and almost conceding a Test. But, if am not mistaken, he himself has gone public by stating that he regrets his loss of composure.

Before somebody points out, let me also say that he gave full vent to his anger in Pakistan at the patently biased umpiring. Those were different times – before the advent of neutral umpires. The officiating of the Pakistan umpires was diabolic on that particular tour. One of the players on that tour told me that he was at the non-striking end when he pointed out to the umpire that Sarfraz Nawaz was overstepping by a long way. But the umpire told him that the bowler could not help it because he was very tall!

It was on this tour that India conceded an ODI because it became a pointless exercise. The bouncers were so high that the batsmen could not have reached it even if one had stood on top of the other! Overs-limit cricket was still in its infancy and one could get away with murder because of the then rules.

The one indisputable embarrassment in Gavaskar’s career was when he scored 36 not out in 60 overs in the first-ever World Cup. But that one innings does not give Ponting the right to question his career and credentials. In his penultimate ODI innings, Gavaskar scored one of the fastest hundreds in the World Cup and in the process overshadowed Krishnamachari Srikkanth.

And, lastly, he could have well avoided taking David Hookes’s example considering that the man died an unfortunate death and also considering that it would hurt the victim’s family and countrymen.

Ponting has repeatedly comes across as someone who shoots his mouth off, only to be embarrassed later. He said Bangladesh did not deserve to be in the Test arena. Cricket Australia had to issue a statement in support of Bangladesh playing Test cricket. Incidentally, Bangladesh defeated Australia in an ODI and raised visions of a Test match victory as well. Though Ponting made amends for his brash statement during Australia’s tour of Bangladesh, it’s evident that he has learnt nothing from the earlier incidents by dismissing the minnows in the fray at the ongoing World Cup. He may live to regret his latest statement as well.

Bangladesh have already shown what they are capable of by beating New Zealand – the same team that came into the World Cup with a 3-0 ODI series win over Australia – while unpretentious Ireland all but beat South Africa, both in the warm-up games.

Gavaskar kept the cross-firing alive when he said that “a ‘hot head guy’ might actually whack the Australian cricketers if they dared replicate their on-field behaviour in a bar.” Gavaskar is unaware - or may have forgotten - that Ponting’s long history of behavioral problems that have already got him the physical treatment. In 1999, he was knocked unconscious following an altercation at Sydney nightclub. He was in the midst of a drinking binge when he got into a fight that left him with a black eye.

A year earlier, he was fined for unacceptable behavior in a Kolkata night club. A female eye-witness at the night club gave a graphic account of Ponting indecent behaviour to an English newspaper. “With one woman, he rubbed himself against her. With another, he was pulling his zipper up and down, drawing attention to his zipper. One of the management asked him to leave and Ponting assaulted him,” she said.

Have we heard the last from Sunny and Punter? I am not betting on that!