Demographers know 1970 as the peak year of Australian births, the year the baby-boomers created their own demographic bump, before declining fertility set in. It is largely coincidental that that year, and those either side of it birthed the single greatest collection of Australian cricketers in an already illustrious history. Pushed through the newly formed academy, great cricketers emerged like golden eggs, faster than the test side could absorb them. A handful of them formed the best test team of their era; most found solace at first-class level, where even uncapped players were historically prolific.
Ricky Ponting was younger. Born in 1974, he forced his way into their midst by weight of runs and obvious talent. Like Messi, an under-sized wunderkind who transcended even the great players he was surrounded by. From youth and talent he also outlasted them all, the final light of an era that Australian cricket will probably never repeat again.
1995-96 was an interesting moment in recent Australian cricket. Australian teams that thrash England are generally granted stability - and vice versa - but by 1995 the Ashes team of 1993 - Taylor, Slater, Boon, Waugh.M, Border, Waugh.S, Healy, Warne, May, McDermott, Hughes - was beginning to fall apart. Border had retired; Langer and Martyn had had a baptism of fire the summer before, missing the Ashes boat, Bevan and Blewett had been tried, but not succeeded. May and Hughes had gone, but McGrath and Warne had arrived; the Waugh twins, freed from the responsibility of bowling, had their most productive seasons, but the rest of the side was less solid. Of the eleven that lined up in Perth with Ponting, four wouldn't play again beyond that summer - Boon, Law, Julian, and McDermott - and Slater would be dropped for recklessness in India less than a year later.
Ponting couldn't have asked for a harder assignment in his first year. Shunted up to three, but without the stability of Slater or Boon, and with Taylor entering a prolonged slump; pressured by the weight of runs coming from Bevan, Hayden, Langer and others, he was quickly dropped. It is a measure of him as a player that he immediately got back to scoring runs: three tons in Shield cricket that same season, a place in the squad to England, and, having bided his time again, a first test century at Headingley.
The next four years weren't memorable ones for Ponting, or even Australian cricket. Sheltered at no. 6, Ponting meshed with the Waugh clean-up machine, but although there were runs, there were few defining innings - 197 vs. Pakistan in Perth, 105 vs. South Africa in Melbourne being the best. Just plenty to clean up. At the top of the order, chaos reigned. No less than seven players were used in the top three after Boon departed; the 1st and 2nd partnerships averaging just 36 over five years. Australia remained number one, but not convincingly; even after 16 straight wins. There was a sense that the golden generation, whose flashy talents had so impressed playing as Australia A in 94/95, lacked the grit to get the job done. England talked up their chances of winning the Ashes in 2001.
They wouldn't, but they did succeed in settling Australia's top-order woes. Australia seemed to stumble onto, rather than choose a top-3 of Hayden, Langer and Ponting; but it worked. For the next six years the 1st and 2nd partnerships averaged 61. Ponting averaged 73 in this period, 62 away from home, a scarcely credible 94 in the 4th innings. On Australia's hard true pitches he drove with impunity, and pulled with a dismissive authority no contemporary could hope to match. Behind them, Martyn, Lehmann and Gilchrist pillaged, rather than cleaned; while Warne and McGrath became such a dominant force that Australia lost just the single match (of 44) where both were playing.
The problem with having a lot of great players the same age, is that they retire at the same time. The problem being younger, is you get to carry the load. The last five years of Ponting's career were a constant struggle, and yet within that struggle his fighting qualities came to the fore. Sometimes in bad ways. He was a poor captain, easily frustrated by umpiring and his bowlers, and lacking trust in a long train of spinners. His own form waned. The tendency to prod forward became more pronounced and he offered the slips and close catchers plenty of chances; particularly away from Australia, when the ball swung or spun; he started getting roughed up by quicks; the tendency to fall over on the drive left his pads and stumps exposed. Facing difficulties he worked harder, off the field and on. He played some of his most important innings, even as his troubles became increasingly obvious. 156 on the last day in Manchester to stave off defeat in 2005; 118* in Fatullah to scrape past Bangladesh; 123 in Bangalore to make a statement of intent; 101 and 99 in Melbourne against South Africa, as his team collapsed around him; 62 in Johannesburg to help tie a series.
What motivates someone to play cricket, also seems to be what motivates them to stay. Of the three great attacking batsmen of his era, Lara seemed most invested in the contest between bat and ball. He played for fun, to entertain, and to dominate, and he quit when the trials of West Indies cricket overwhelmed him. Tendulkar seems to be the ultimate cricketing existentialist; playing on because to do otherwise is to deny himself. Ponting has always played to win. His legacy became increasingly tarnished by failure, causing great angst for selectors who hadn't had to end a distinguished career for half a decade. Ponting, to his credit, if not necessarily to the team's benefit, refused to give up, playing on because he believed he could contribute, throwing off tradition to relinquish the captaincy and play under Clarke, working ever harder. When announcing his retirement, he stated frankly that he no longer felt he was contributing sufficiently, and will leave the crease knowing he gave everything to the cause.
Ponting was the last player of a generation that arrived on the scene just as I grew into test cricket. A generation that grew up when Australia lost as often as they won, and relished every victory. They weren't always likeable - perhaps even none of them were - and I'll always retain much greater affection for the 90s, when they were young players finding their feet, over the early-2000s when they swept all before them. But there was no denying they could play, or that Ponting was the best of a great batting lineup. And while he could have left us much earlier, with an average much higher, any history of that era will need to reserve a special post-script for Ponting, whose quixotic attempt to deny time and the passing of that era will end in Perth.
30th November, 2012 14:52:56
Nice piece, Russ. An excellent summation. Ponting was a wonderful cricketer to watch, one who excelled in what I regard as 'core Australian skills': pulling and hooking, and great slip catching to the quicks.
Samir Chopra 30th November, 2012 23:22:40
A lovely, concise, affectionate and accurate survey of his career, Russ. The penultimate paragraph is an absolute gem.
Just reading through it I was reminded of a few things - the 156 at Old Trafford in 2005 for one, the fact that he represents the last link with the greatest era in Australian cricket history for another. Such is the way things have moved in the last few years, it's been easy to forget that.
It'll be interesting to follow Clarke over the next few years. For a long time I've felt he had greatness within him (and couldn't understand why he seemed to be disliked by so many in Australia) and now he's basically there, but he's on his own in a way Ponting never was when he was at his best.
Brian Carpenter 3rd December, 2012 05:24:55
Brian, likewise. Ponting is an enigma in some ways, in that the the two long periods 96-01, 07-12 where he averaged ~40 make up more of his career than the dominant middle. Not that a 40 average is bad, just vulnerable. Maybe every batsman is like that, but only the best are seen on the international stage across the breadth of their career.
Clarke frustrated me for a long time because he got out when Australia needed more, and when he seemed well set. There is a looseness to his shots outside off that will, like Ponting actually, cause him to have prolonged slumps. But I'm not most Australians; I think most Australians prefer their batsmen to be like Boon: squinty eyed and compact, with a bat in one hand, a beer in the other, and their foot on the opponent's throat. They'll settle for just the last though. Clarke will do okay there if Pattinson and Cummins stay healthy. And there are some good kids coming through, there almost always are really.
Russ 4th December, 2012 16:53:45