Ricky Ponting: Symbols, Cycles and the Old Ways

Great players often leave great holes behind them

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.

More ups and downs than a soap opera

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.

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England vs Sri Lanka: An Australian kind of victory

At the start of the fifth day England were not supposed to win their Test against Sri Lanka, the rain was falling, the leader of their bowling attack was injured and frankly time was running out. Yet the fact they did it, maintaining their winning momentum from the Ashes, and took all ten Sri Lankan wickets in 24.4 overs was a remarkable achievement and one which kicked a key summer for this team into gear.

For whatever the criticisms of the Sri Lankan batting, which was always likely to struggle if Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene failed to fire, plenty of credit is due to England. Their bowlers followed up on the fine work of their batting line-up (three centurions-one with a daddy hundred, another with a grand-daddy) and exerted the kind of pressure which Sri Lanka’s bowlers failed to build up.

The steepling bounce and consistent length of Chris Tremlett was complimented by some wonderfully skillful spin bowling from Graeme Swann and a more consistent showing from Stuart Broad who was far more consistent with line and length second time round. There was no way out for the Sri Lankan batsmen, choked by the relentless pressure of England’s bowlers and the scoreboard and match situation. They had no hope of victory, and England exerting pressure, took the draw out of the equation.

It was a victory which had shades of the kind of disintegration which Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting practised at their height of dominance. Time after time, Australia’s stellar batting line-up would rack up substantial scores and then with the seam of Glenn McGrath, the pace of Jason Gillespie and Brett Lee and then the spin of Shane Warne. Ponting once remarked ahead of an Ashes tour: “Mental disintegration? That’s what it’s all about, really, trying to keep England under pressure from ball one of the series until the series ends. That’s what our whole cricket theme, if you like, is based on.”

For Andrew Strauss and the veterans of England’s 2006/2007 Ashes tour this will have brought back shades of their own collapse in Adelaide when Warne got into their minds and turned a seemingly inevitable situation around. Just as England then seemed destined for defeat once the collapse began, so Sri Lanka seemed destined for defeat here-the hunted had become the hunter.

Shaun Tait’s return provides a welcome boost for Ricky Ponting and Australia

So near and yet so far, one wicket, one ball, one chance was all that Australia needed to put this one day series back in the balance. Yet now, they must reflect on another defeat, and for the first time since 2007, a one day series defeat to England.

Whereas the previous two games had been strolls in the park for England, with a weakened Australian bowling attack lacking significant fire power to worry English batsmen, this game was much closer as Australia’s attack had a cutting edge which had been sorely missing.

The key was Shaun Tait, making his first appearance in the one day team since February 2009 after a variety of injury and off-field problems.

While he was only capable of performing in two-over spells, his speeds-at times touching 97 miles per hour-were remarkable, and so for once was his accuracy, with his penchant for spraying the ball all over the place forgotten.

His first ball-a jaffer to Craig Kieswetter-set the tone, before he later added the wickets of Kevin Pietersen and Michael Yardy to mark a successful return, though not ultimately for his team.

His captain Ricky Ponting said: “It’s really encouraging to have him back in the side and it’s always exciting when you’ve got someone who can bowl like that.

“Having someone like that, who’s got that firepower and that bit of unpredictability in your team, is always nice to have. I thought that with the exception of a couple of wides that he bowled today, everything else was very, very good. It was a welcome return for Shaun.”

Certainly, Ponting and his team will have welcomed any silver lining they could have taken from this series.

There are plenty of concerns regarding their batting line-up, specifically the inability to post significant scores, while the reliance on Nathan Hauritz and the inexperienced Steven Smith as the sole spin options with a sub-continent World Cup looming is a worry.

But the sight of Shaun Tait, running in hard and getting wickets is certainly a welcome boost-and potentially a significant one. After a series which has so far been pretty gloomy for the tourists, Australia may just have a reason to be cheerful.

Phoney One Day International War unlikely to provide many clues for Ashes battles’ ahead

Judging by their respective ODI records, and the fact that less than a year ago England were soundly beaten by Australia, and by soundly I mean ritually humiliated, all roads point to an Australian victory.

But this is a different England, a team emboldened by T20 silverware and a new mindset forever verging towards the positive. They have, as Scotland captain Gavin Hamilton put it: “an aura”, and this is an Australian team lacking plenty of household names.

Whereas come Ashes time, England will be coming up against new ball bowlers in the guise of Mitchell Johnson, Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, here they come up against Doug Bollinger, Ryan Harris and Josh Hazlewood.

Perhaps that is why, in all seriousness, for all Paul Collingwood’s bold conviction that this is a pre-cursor to the battle’s that lie ahead-in truth much in terms of personnel and of course time, can change.

Not that Australia should be underestimated, in a sense they are very much edging towards a brave new world-one which following this winter’s Ashes, may well be without the Hussey brothers and Ricky Ponting-though their sheer bloody-mindedness should not rule them out of one last crack at an away victory in 2013.

But now both they, and their biggest rivals, can assess just what the future holds. A middle order containing Cameron White-who could very much be a part of the furniture for years to come, Michael Clarke-Ponting’s successor and young wicketkeeper Tim Paine are a sign of things to come on the batting front.

Meanwhile-the hugely promising duo of Steven Smith and Josh Hazlewood-inevitably dubbed the next Warne and Mcgrath-will be worth a watch for England, though perhaps as much in the hope of getting in earlier dents upon their burgeoning reputations.

Yet England themselves will feel pressure, pressure to build momentum, to show that in a year they have gone from whipping boys to World Cup contenders.

Throughout the team, there are questions that need answers.

Is Kieswetter the answer in 50 over cricket? Does Strauss score at a sufficient click to justify automatic selection? Will Jimmy Anderson end the series as England’s pace bowling leader once again? And do Michael Yardy’s darts really work in a longer version than T20?

These are questions which England’s selectors will hope to find answers for now, rather than later.

Perhaps it is this which is why this tournament, the phoney war, means little. It is a means of testing the water against a familiar foe, but proves little of real significance.

It is a battle between two of cricket’s great rivals, but in truth the results will count for nothing in the grander scheme of things. Though the answers both Australia and England find may yet prove useful, the real test will be in the greater battles which lie ahead.