Ponting Punted?

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Matt Wood of Balanced Sports ponders the plight of Ricky Ponting post World Cup.

Perhaps it all came about as a result of his run-in with Steve Smith.  Maybe three Ashes defeats from four have finally taken their toll.  It could be that his recent form – stunningly unresembling his best – may have marked his cards.  But the Sydney Morning Herald has reported that Ricky Ponting’s captaincy career could be in for its most stern boardroom test when the team returns from their World Cup campaign.  The current tour could be his last as Australian captain.

It’s fair that Ponting’s reign is thrown into question both for his recent results and on-field attitude.  His ascension to the captaincy seemed a case of “right place, right time”: he was the standout candidate of a middling field when selectors last deemed generational change necessary.  For the first time since Ian Johnson’s departure, Australia lacks a clear successor.  Of course the plan was for Michael Clarke to follow in his footsteps as the best choice available, but his performances in late 2010 and charisma (that of a moose) haven’t endeared him to either public or selectors.  In the SMH article which brought this issue to light it is suggested his stock has recovered somewhat.

There’s nothing wrong with change for its own sake.  Indeed given the recent re-emergence of his always-prominent petulant streak, it could be his teammates support him because of what he was, rather than what he now is.  This is an admirable position and his achievements as batsman and leader demand that acknowledgement, but the stance is quite possibly flawed.  It’s eminently possible that Ricky Ponting is no longer the best man to lead Australia; it may even be that he’s only kept the position recently due to a dearth of suitable successors.

What Ponting must remember is that stepping aside now would not be a sign of weakness, nor a commentary on his his success as captain.  Context in sport, in life, is all-important.  He was charged with the difficult task of maintaining supremacy with a deteriorating team; his record reflects the challenges he has faced.  He started his reign as one of a half-dozen World Class players in the Australian team and ended it the only one.  In twenty years, we will not look back and say “Ricky Ponting lost the Ashes three times”, though it will be true.  We will say he did a good – but not outstanding – job in trying circumstances and wanted to better his record right up until the end.

He’s always been honest and open, yet it could be that his tenure should end for no other reason than it’s just time to go.  After leading his country for nine years in the most high-stress job in the country outside Prime Minister, perhaps it is time Ponting surrendered the position.  He first led the Australian Test team on 8th March 2004, meaning he could well be facing cricket’s equivalent of the seven-year itch – and feels it’s time to move on to new challenges but is yet to recognise and submit to those desires.  His outward stance is that he’s not finished.  The inward position could be very different.

In the excellent ABC cricket documentary “Cricket in the 70s”, Greg Chappell recounts being told by his brother Ian that he was resigning the captaincy.  Ian Chappell, one of perhaps a handful of the most influential figures in Australian cricket ever, was only captain of his country for eight series over just five years; on telling his brother – and heir apparent – he was retiring he just said “Mate, when you know, you’ll know”.  Chappelli had burned out, just as Greg would do in the early 1980s.  Kim Hughes would suffer the same affliction in 1985.  All three – and Border and Ponting, too – had been subjected to stresses never experienced by Steve Waugh or Mark Taylor.

Ponting’s reign is beginning to resemble that of Greg Chappell: great batsmen weighed down by expectation as captain.  Chappell rose above it to finish on a high, but captained Australia only in forty-eight Tests.  Ponting nearly doubles that total with eighty.  He’s also slightly older, with a slightly more ropey technique and has nearly 360 ODIs to his name.  It is fair and understandable that he is tired, tetchy and irritable.

The physical signs of stress are obvious to outsiders.  Barack Obama has vast quantities more silver hair than he did only two years ago and, back home, Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have both aged markedly while leading Australian politics.  The US system of government allows a President to serve only two consecutive terms for two reasons – to share power and for the health of the President.  Ponting looks old and tired.

These may be the last days of Ricky Ponting.  If he goes, he won’t be the first or last player to be “nudged” by the powers-that-be.  It’s a sad way for a star to go out, but the results of him hanging on may colour his captaincy even further in gloomy shades of blue.


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