Thursday, November 29, 2012

Good Bye Punter

Ricky Ponting announced his retirement from test cricket today, on the eve of the 3rd and last test match at Perth, in Australia's home series vs South Africa. It brings to an end, a remarkable career of an incredible cricketer. It also ends a few other things.
To me, in my own mind's cricketing mythology, for a long time, he was the ultimate arch enemy, the number one adversary, the man I loved to hate. When India was playing against Australia, his was the wicket that I celebrated the most. He was the man I wanted us to beat. He was to me, what I am told, Javed Miandad was for a generation of Indian fans. While I can't be certain, quite possibly I am not alone in having these feelings. If I think about it, why is it that Bhajji getting him out repeatedly in 2001, or for that matter Ishant dismissing him at the WACA bring a smile to my face. It is because, it mattered. He was that type of a player.
I am not quite sure, when Ricky Ponting started to get under my skin. I was a big Aussie fan as a kid, with Steve Waugh, a particularly big hero for me growing up. Ricky Ponting came into the team and somewhat slipped under the radar. Here was a talented batsman with a high backlift and a sensational pull stroke, making plenty of runs, but when Australia played, I used to have other stars in my eyes - the Waugh twins, Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath. Perhaps it was the little scuffle he had with young Bhajji in Sharjah, 1998. Perhaps it was the horrible series down under in 1999-2000, when Srinath hit Punter on the helmet with a bouncer only to get a mouthful, that really enraged me. Perhaps it was just his eager, enthusiastic, spitting on finger demeanor on the field which came across as abrasive to me.
I sure had a great time the next time India and Australia played test cricket, Ponting made all of 17 runs in 3 test matches in the most epic of contests. However, not too long after 23rd March, 2003 happened. If ever there was a game I wanted us to win, this was it and to be beaten, no ... ruthlessly demolished was the stuff of nightmares. He inflicted pain that day and it hurts even today when you remember it.
Ricky Ponting was like that as a batsman. He came at the bowler, he had a high backlift, a big stride towards the pitch of the ball, a lovely stroke of his blade and a flourishing follow through. He was probably the best puller of a cricket ball that I have seen in the last 20+ years of watching cricket. He came to dominate attacks, he led from the front, scored generally at a terrific pace and was a brilliant batsman to watch. He was absolutely dynamic at the crease. And when he played his cover drive on the up, you knew that this was going to be painful for the bowlers.
As the awesome Australian team evolved over the years, there test match one, two and three became Hayden, Langer and Ponting. I am fairly certain that since Haynes, Greenidge and Viv Richards, this was the most fearsome top 3 in test cricket. When it came to ODIs, Ponting walked in after Hayden and Gilchrist would typically have given rollicking starts. The Australian batting line up was fearsome in those days.
My love hate relationship with Ponting continued through the last decade with Monkeygate and that Sydney test match being particular low points. Looking back at the last decade though, the India - Australia rivalry in test cricket is what defined my best years as a cricket fan, it is what has given me some of my best memories as a cricket fan and Ponting will forever be in my memory as a central character in these contests. And the Ahmedabad Quarter Final last year, the biggest game since 2003 W Cup final, the most surreal cricketing experience of my life, where Ponting did score yet another fuck you 100, but ended with a win, probably brought closure to this equation.
Ricky Ponting scored, nay, plundered runs all over the world, in his own unique way. He never became my favourite player, probably because I am a bit of a sucker for the type that plays well when the chips are down and mounts a fightback. Ponting rarely let these sort of situations develop because he ended so many contests early, like a heavyweight who has a penchant for knocking out his opposition in the first round.

And so, it took a rather unusual situation: the 3rd test of the 2005 Ashes series, that changed the way how I looked at Punter. After a routine first test victory at Lords, Australia were shocked by England in the second test at Edgbaston with Freddie Flintoff's incredible performance. The world of cricket sat up and took notice as one could feel that this was going to be an Ashes series like none other, a series where the English had a chance, a series that would go down in history as a special one. When the third test at Old Trafford entered the fifth day, Australia needed 423 to win with nine wickets in hand; an England victory was the most likely result. The shift in balance of power in the Anglo-Australian cricketing universe was in process, but Ricky Ponting went on to play one of the best fifth day test 100s that I have ever seen to delay the transition. He scored a magnificent 156 runs and was dismissed with just four overs left in the match (which McGrath and Brett Lee somehow survived to draw the test). I saw the human side of a player, who I had previously looked at as the archrival, the ultimate enemy. Till then, I had only grudging respect for the bloke, that day it changed into something more affectionate.

Ricky Thomas Ponting: Champion batsman and best all round fielder ever - You will be missed. 

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