From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.35 :: NO.03 :: Jan. 19, 2012
By the time Ricky Ponting had scraped himself from the Sydney Cricket Ground's turf, spitting out bits of earth and grass, and had smiled like he has rarely smiled before in public — the open, relaxed smile of a man that had just let go — the fast-talking Michael Slater had managed to get Rianna Ponting to talk about the moment for Channel 9.
The mask Ponting wears in international cricket — that of the bristling, scowling competitor — had slipped in a moment of release. The missus was about to smash it. So we learnt that Punter had relaxed after giving up captaincy, that he's “a better dad, a better husband” and that the family's life had changed completely. We also learnt that Ponting was training harder because “maybe he looks around at these 21-year-olds who weren't even born when he started because he's so old now, he looks around at them and knows he has to keep up.”
But most of all, we learnt that the great man, now 37, had been worried about his century drought — a period of two years and 33 innings in which the batsman who once dominated bowling attacks looked susceptible to everything. Had Australia been in a stronger position, with young talent challenging the stalwarts, Ponting would have left Test cricket — or been pushed out. Australia rarely lets former captains dwell in a team; the new leader has a team all to himself so he can mould it in his image, and the first action undertaken by the management is to strip away the past.
But Australia couldn't afford to let Ponting go. He had kept Australia competitive through a transition — there was a measure of gratitude. But mostly it was realism. He was still the best man for Australia in the middle-order. Unfortunately for Ponting, the runs just weren't coming as they used to. His average of 36.5 in 32 Tests between 2009 and 2011 suggested his powers were declining. The feared pull stroke — the shot that had emasculated many a fast bowler — was booming no more. His reflexes has dulled a fraction, some said, and so he wasn't in position to hit down on the ball. The short ball was hurrying him; he was getting struck more often. He had begun to fall over his front leg, and so his bat was chopping across the flight. As a result, the moving ball was causing him all sorts of trouble. Then there was the turning ball. The signs were ominous.
But Ponting's pride wouldn't let him quit. “For me over the last few months there's been a lot more pressure on me than I've never had at any stage of my career,” he said after his 134 in the second Test. “But that's just made me work harder. I'm a pretty proud person, and the last thing I wanted to do was to finish my career the way it had been going the last few months. That's why I've worked as hard as I had. I wanted to give myself the best chance to play well and win games of cricket for Australia, and that's the only reason I continue to play. There's nothing else personally I'm trying to achieve, other than to help the Australian team win games, and get back up from No. 5 or wherever we were a few months ago, back up to the top of the tree where we deserve to be.”
So Ponting went back to the drawing-board. He had to dismantle his technique before putting it back together. Fortunately he had the help of one of the sharpest brains — his own. Matthew Hayden writes in his autobiography of the Tasmanian's intuitive feel for batting technique. Ponting also had batting coach Justin Langer to bounce ideas off.
“I've had to work exceptionally hard, harder than ever on certain technical aspects of my game, there's no doubt about that,” he said. “I've been doing that for a little while now, I've been doing a couple of different things over the last couple of weeks, which are starting to pay dividends for me. The thing that is starting to come back is that real rhythm about my batting, and the feeling of being at ease at the crease.”
With the little things clicking into place, and Rahul Dravid's text messages encouraging him to keep going, the confidence began to grow.
“When you're going through a lean trot it is amazing how many little things creep into your head, and those little things can sometimes take over and get in the way of what you're trying to do,” he said. “Confidence in our game is an amazing thing and spending time in the middle is what every batsman needs to do when they're going through a lean trot. I now have more confidence in my game than I have had for a long time.”
What Ponting has shown over the last few weeks is that a champion always finds a way. As long as the desire to improve burns bright — and it does for Ponting, who says the first thing he thinks of every morning when he sees himself in the mirror is how he can become a better batsman — infirmities of the body can be overcome. He has done it by getting himself into better shape than 99.9 percent of 37-year-old athletes and adapting his game slightly, doing certain things slightly differently.
He can still bat like he did when he was at the height of his powers, but not as frequently and for as long. In his half-century in Melbourne and the century in Sydney, he was both struggler and master.
Most vital of all, the runs came. And in making these runs, Ponting has earned the space to quit on his terms, on his time. That's all ageing champions can ask for really.
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