Lawrence Booth, interviewed at the excellent The Cricket Couch, told me that a difference between bloggers and journalists is that bloggers can write what they like – so I’m doing just that here.
Ricky Ponting was not a great player.
There. I’ve said it now. I’ve written what I want – and it’s not at all what was written beautifully by Andy Bull and Rob Smyth here or by the er… great Rahul Dravid here. But it’s something I’ve felt for a long time and, in this week of tributes, I feel no less strongly.
Let’s get some stuff out of the way before we start. Ricky Ponting’s numbers are fantastic – Tests won, World Cups won, runs scored, plenty more. It’s as great a weight of stats of anyone save Tendulkar and Kallis. He churned out what wins cricket matches more than anyone else – and that is a kind of greatness. But not my kind.
Punter was also a great fielder – maybe not quite as great as Mark Waugh, but a superb natural athlete who allied fierce concentration and astute anticipation to be brilliant anywhere from slip to boundary rider. Even in his last Test, he looks the best fielder on either side, a testament to standards set and maintained. But no cricketer is truly great because of fielding.
It is Ponting’s two main skills – batting and captaincy – that define him as a great. Or otherwise.
As a batsman, Ponting lacked (only just mind) two elements of greatness (possibly magnified in my eyes because these flaws didn’t seem to bother anyone else). His first movement was always forward, trusting his dead fish eye and to deal with even the fastest of bowling from a yard or two closer than was absolutely necessary. Even back-foot shots (including the celebrated signature swivel pull) were, more often than not, played from a “neutral” position, neither forward nor back. It is a batting style that could only have been developed in the age of body armour, as the penalty for misjudgment would have been too great in the time before chest pads and helmets. It made watching Ponting somewhat repetitive after a while – especially if Matthew Hayden was at the other end, doing the same thing even more obviously. The batting greatness failed the aesthetics criterion.
He also (again only by the highest of standards) failed the balance criterion. Early in an innings, many batsmen struggle to get their feet moving, but this was not a problem for Ponting. His problem was the opposite – moving the feet too much, lunging so far at the ball with the front pad that the bat and head couldn’t catch up and he would occasionally edge to slip. Ishant Sharma (amongst others) troubled him a lot with a ball that bounced on about a fifth stump line early on. Once settled, Ponting did not lunge so much, but his balance (and he must have had it to hit the ball as far as he did) was never the same kind of still balance that one saw in Damien Martyn or VVS Laxman, a balance that suggests the world has suddenly slowed down. Punter’s balance was one of many moving parts, a slightly frenetic balance that suggested that the world had speeded up and only he could now keep pace with it. Ponting was never languid – maybe he never needed to be.
As a captain, his greatest asset was his leadership by example and unquestioned authority in a dressing room not short of those keen to question everything. As with his batting, he was often a touch frenetic in the field, picking fights with opponents and umpires, raising the stakes instead of calming things down. It may have worked – the positive contribution of captaincy is so hard to judge, though its negative contribution is often bleedin’ obvious – but it made watching “ugly Australians” something of a trial at times. Whole sessions seemed to comprise conversations with umpires about decisions not given, the ball, the light, who knows what – but discussions were seldom brief nor friendly. Maybe I just saw them more often – Punter did captain in 77 Tests and 230 ODIs, so there was plenty of time for familiarity to morph into, well if not quite contempt, then a certain impatience. Watching Ponting in the field could take on the same feeling one gets when in the company of a work colleague you know to be sensitive to slights, real or imagined – eventually you get a bit tired. He was a captain with a fast bowler’s temperament.
But he didn’t have a fast bowler’s imagination. Despite being very active with the umpires, he could let sessions drift, often getting into trouble with over-rates and occasionally making curious decisions (none more so than in 2009 at Cardiff when Marcus North was the man chosen to dislodge Anderson or Panesar). A strange combination of long discussions with bowlers (sometimes, annoyingly, in mid-over) and a field that seemed more the product of a playbook than an instinctive response to changing circumstances, characterised his work. But his results speak for themselves – as they should with resources he had at his disposal for much of his career.
Is that charge sheet – thin as it is even by my reckoning, and I’m counsel for the prosecution – sufficient to disqualify the Tasmanian from being “a Great”? Probably not, but it’s strange that I’d prefer to watch both his predecessor and his successor as batting or leading, not to mention plenty of others. I never felt that frisson of excitement when he walked to the middle and I was always glad to see the back of him whether at the crease or in the field and you’re just not supposed to feel that way about great players. I feared and respected him as an opponent, but I didn’t really connect – maybe that abstract element “connection with me” as a lover of the game, would have been enough to iron over the narrow cracks detailed above. But I never did connect with Punter the cricketer and now I never will.