As with anything regarding Australian cricket past and present, Gideon Haigh summed it up best. He once wrote: “Great players often leave great holes behind them; it is a very rare great player who effectively renders himself redundant”. Haigh was writing about Allan Border, but the sentiment could so easily be applied to one of Border’s successors Ricky Ponting, whose final day of test cricket leaves Australia facing a great hole to fill.
When cricketers become symbols of their age, their exit also becomes symbolic. Ponting’s exit is a symbolic moment in Australian cricket, not for what he was but what he represented. His cycle was a golden one, spanning 17 years of (mostly) unprecedented success, but also of turbulent change as cricket has straddled the demands of valuation and values as the rise of the shortest form has posed a challenge to its longest.
And in amongst the cacophony of hyperbole and exaggeration, Ponting was a voice of reason who often stood up for the game’s finest traditions despite being the captain of the world’s most commercially driven and powerful cricketing country.
He frequently spoke of his fondness for his old days of club cricket, retired from Twenty20 such was his disdain for the format and argued long and loud for the protection of Test cricket and Shield Cricket. He even devoted his Bradman oration to a recollection of his youth growing up playing cricket in Launceston and listening to the old pro’s at his cricket club Mowbray.
It’s hard not to feel his passing is significant. Australian cricket finds itself increasingly at the mercy of the game’s shortest form, with the rise of the Big Bash and the IPL enriching a generation of ordinary Australian cricketers, while it’s form in the longest form suffers. It is at a crossroads and Ponting’s traditional values may themselves soon become increasingly obsolete.
Indeed Ponting was very much in the mould of much of the Australian traditions. He was as competitive as they came, a prodigious talent who seldom took a backwards step against any opposition and who fielded with the enthusiastic energy of a greyhound. His aggression at times overspilled, but it underlined the fiercely competitive streak which made the likes of Dennis Lillee, Jeff Thomson, Allan Border and Steve Waugh real Australian heroes. If anything Ponting was a product of his upbringing.
Yet there are few like him left. Australian cricket needs heroes, people it can identify with, and while it’s technical purists have always attracted purrs of delight. Hard-nosed competitive bastards have always been popular down under, Australian cricket has lost that edge. If the recent examples of Mitchell Marsh and Luke Pomersbach tell us anything, it expects it’s players to be saints rather than sinners. Ponting could be both, but importantly, everyone knew he could easily be the latter if a win was at stake.
Australia will miss that. Ponting was a winner, regardless of the failings of the past three years, and a master batsman to boot. He was symbolic of the age he played in – a winning cricketer in an Australian team which was utterly devoted to it.
He was the golden son of a golden age, and with him passing closes a chapter in Australian cricket which will probably go down as it’s greatest. Ponting led his side to victories, delivered defining innings when it really mattered-too many to count-and at number three dominated opposition bowlers in a style unlike any Australian right hander.
While his place in the side became more and more based upon sentiment as his failures began to stack up, it was a sentiment borne of his standing in international cricket and the nagging fear that one day it would click and the old magic would return and be unleashed on an opposition again.
Nor was his place in the side completely without merit – his form in Shield Cricket where he topped the early run scorers chart – demanded his place in the side, but his failures this summer have merely reinforced the growing gap between the two and confirmed to Ponting that he could no longer continue kidding himself.
Perhaps now neither can Australia. Ponting’s place in the side was a last reminder of what Australia were until recently, a great and dominant side. His departure, and the manner of his decline, are symbolic of the reality of the situation facing them now. The sad reality is that Ponting’s place was as much on merit as reputation such is the dearth of options which Australia have.
Whereas the likes of Border and Waugh could retire safe in the knowledge that they were being pushed for someone else to come in, Ponting has tried to hang on until someone possible came along, only retiring once he no longer felt capable of carrying on.
The options facing them are scarce. Usman Khawaja, Callum Ferguson and Phil Hughes sit atop the run scorer charts in Shield Cricket, but all experienced as many ups and downs as a soap opera character.
Mark Cosgrove remains an option, but a weighty one unconsidered by the selectors while the likes of Chris Rogers and David Hussey ought to deserve consideration on experience alone but won’t get it. As solutions go it hardly bodes well for the future.
So as Ponting moves into retirement, Australia must confront themselves with the reality of the situation which they have been able to hide from for too long. That great hole the great players leave behind could prove to be an especially great one for Ponting’s successor. Australia may be about to learn just how great the hole really is.
If Ponting’s career was symbolic of the successful Australian team he was part of, his exit in defeat could be equally symbolic of the Australia team which will follow his departure. Competitive, capable but ultimately bereft of the inspiration or never-say-day attitude which Ponting himself embodied more than anyone.