Despite skippering Australia to their first Ashes defeat in 18 years, Ricky Ponting was named as one of Wisden’s Five Cricketers of the Year in 2006. Bruce Wilson explains why.
After that most delirious of summers, now destined to bore countless thousands of unborn grandchildren, it might seem perverse-to-absurd to include in this annual salute to excellence a batsman whose Test average dipped, who made arguably the worst decision by an Australian captain in 30 years, who was fined for what might be called excessive surliness and lost the Ashes.
Yet Ricky Ponting joins this unique roll-call for any number of reasons, some of which approach the abstract; not least, for example, is the one that it takes two to tango. Without Ponting’s own particular persona combating Michael Vaughan’s very different one, the chemical formulae that exploded into the 2005 Ashes would not have reacted as spectacularly as they did. Ponting’s flaws and strengths were all part of the magic mix.
His strengths included one of the great match-saving innings – by far the most consequential batting performance by an Australian all summer: the 156 at Old Trafford, when he stood between Australia and total Ashes meltdown. It was his 23rd Test century, made in circumstances far rougher than most of the others.
No.3 in Wisden’s Test innings of the 2000s is @RickyPonting‘s 156 at Old Trafford, a knock which single-handedly kept the ’05 Ashes level.
Steve Waugh billed it Ponting’s graduation to Test captaincy.https://t.co/yJzuue6gzs
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) May 18, 2020
Ponting’s greatness as a batsman has never been in dispute, nor his place in the Wisden pantheon. In 2004, he was the first recipient, by acclamation rather than vote, of the Almanack’s newest award, the Leading Cricketer in the World. That came after a 2003 when he led Australia to victory in the World Cup, scored 11 international centuries in the calendar year and unleashed two successive double-centuries against India, the series that until last year stood as Australia’s most eventful and competitive of recent times.
In 2005, there was a strong argument that, as commanding officer, he was responsible for the warship losing its teeth. The questions over his tactical captaincy, the nuts-and-bolts everyday stuff of field placings and just when to turn the screw, persisted until the last day of the Fifth Test. But Ponting’s defenders went to The Oval noting that with just a couple of drops of luck Australia could have been leading the series 3-0. And the failure of so many of his team-mates to reach their normal heights was not his fault.
The background noise to all this, though, was the stark fact that Ponting sent England in to bat at Edgbaston having just seen his main strike bowler, Glenn McGrath, taken to hospital. The ubiquitous “team sources” were quick to say that the decision had been made inflexibly by committee. Ponting, typically, would have none of that, and shouldered the blame.
Ricky Thomas Ponting was born on December 19, 1974 in Launceston, Tasmania’s second city, in the north of that beautiful if eccentric island, son of Graeme and Lorraine. He was a sporting prodigy who at 11 scored four centuries in a Tasmania-wide Under-13 week. Promoted to the Under-16s, he promptly scored two more. His astonishing and quite natural talent has never been in doubt. At 20, he was already in the Test team. He lost his place at 21. At 22, he returned to the team to score a chanceless maiden century at Headingley – near perfection, said Wisden.
It was still not all smooth after that. But the bumps in his career, apart from a chastening against spin in India, were largely self-induced and off the field, until he settled down, gave up the beefsteak’n’bourbon life, and got married. He maintained, though, his love for what Australians call the dishlickers – well-bred greyhounds. His nickname remains “Punter”. Marriage somehow enabled him to make runs even more regularly, and helped harden the selectors’ view that he, rather than the très méchant Warne, was Steve Waugh’s natural successor in both forms of the game. And until the Ashes series, Ponting’s captaincy had kept Australia at an unfaltering position at the top of the world. But by Old Trafford last summer, a lesser man might have buckled, if from nothing else but the sheer weight of cutlery in his back. Instead, he played the defensive innings of his life to scramble the draw.
In the next Test, we had the Pratt Affair, when substitute fieldsman Gary Pratt ran Ponting out and the stuff that had been rumbling away erupted in a fiery cascade of expletives. Ponting was admonished, heavily fined, and he apologised. The epilogue to this went almost unnoticed.
With the Ashes just lost at The Oval, the teams were drinking together (and Ponting’s personality surely played a part in that kind of fraternising) when a nervous Pratt asked if a photograph might be signed. Jokes ensued and Ponting, instead, handed the young Durham man two pairs of his initialled boots. “I think he was pleased,” Ponting said. Astoundedly delighted, said an eye-witness. It was seen as a typical gesture from this understated man.
In Tasmania, just after leading a thrashing of the World XI and just before making a century in each innings against West Indies in the First Test, Ponting said that even as it all drifted away that last day in South London he was able to console himself. He was confident his position as captain was secure. “I just thought, well, they’re only out on loan, the Ashes. It’s less than 18 months away, and then we’ll have them back.”