Thursday, 20 June 2013

Owed to Punter

As an Englishman, I feel hard-wired to greet the announcement that Ricky Ponting is to retire in October with unbridled joy. But instead the news leaves me feeling... sad. Over the years that have passed since Ponting stood synonymous with English defeat, wretched performance, and general Pom-bashing, I've found myself resenting 'Punter' less, and more and more warming to him as a fantastic purveyor of his craft and factotum to the game of cricket.

I hated the Ricky Ponting who scored nearly 2,500 runs against us in the Ashes tournaments, the player who scored 127 in his first Ashes match; consecutive hundreds in the 06/07 series; the obdurate barnacle who refused to die at Cardiff in 2009, or Manchester in '05. I laughed myself silly when Gary Pratt ran him out at Trent Bridge and he subsequently had a hissy-fit on his way back to the changing room. Statistically, he actually saved his best cricket for India, Pakistan and South Africa over that which he brought against us. But his ever-present taste for English blood, a direct successor to the ruthlessness of Steve Waugh, was the ultimate thorn-in-the-paw.

Un-restrained Pom-basher
Yet he was also the Australian captain who lost three Ashes tournaments. And for the era of cricket that I grew up watching, that is one of the ways in which he will be remembered in my eyes. A take-no-prisoners face of Australian hegemony right until a watershed moment where was there churlish behaviour amid a team that was coming apart at the seams. Even then at his weaker moments I was derided him. Served him right for being an arrogant Australian prick, thought I.

Since the end of my formative cricket-watching years, which ended in such a blight in 2007, there have been the years of 'adult' cricket viewing. And during this time, from 2008 until his retirement from Test cricket very recently, I've seen Ponting in a different light. I look upon him with sympathy. I saw a tiring warrior, past his prime, leading (and then following) a team of former-immortals now struggling with their own weaknesses, and with the very concept of mortality. How could Ponting reconcile the idea that winning by simply being Australian would no longer cut it in the post-2009 era? The very smugness of such a concept is perhaps, having pervaded the minds of the latest generation of Australian school children, the reason why this current team is such a shambles. They no longer have to try, they think, because they watched their forebears do it so easily.

The only player left from the old-guard was Ponting, a soldier in bronzed Napoleonic garb marching with greying whiskers alongside ranks of youthful paratroopers and space-age combat-gear.

How I saw the Ponting of later years.
These are the two hemispheres of my perception of Ricky Ponting. The battling, dislikeable and arrogant bruiser, full of temper and alcohol-problems, followed by a mellowed, calmer champion surrounded by mediocrity. From eye-rolling groans every time he came to the wicket, I changed to cheering him on to every century.  I watched the post-captaincy innings with delight, enjoying some classical batsmanship from one of the pillars of my cricketing youth.

I think that I have retrospectively labelled Ricky Ponting a hero. I hated him when he was better than us, but once that time had ended I cheered him for trying his best in a world in which he no longer fitted. Now he is leaving, and the timing seems wise - he top-scored in the Sheffield Shield, and is making runs for fun in Surrey.

I wish him fair horizons as one of the last ships of my cricketing youth clears on the horizon. There don't seem to be many more left.

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