ricky ponting

Ricky Ponting – The Inglorious Basterd

There have been only two instances when I have cried, with regards to cricket.

One was the infernal disaster that was the 1996 World Cup semi-final at Calcutta. As a ten year old who fell in love with the game during that tournament, I felt cheated that I didn’t get the dream finish that I had hoped, with India lifting the trophy.

The other occasion was the 2003 World Cup final. Yet again, India and Tendulkar were thwarted at the cusp of glory. After overcoming a disastrous start to their campaign, India had built up good momentum before getting crushed by the Aussies in the final. As I reeled at the magnitude of the defeat and was left wallowing at another despairing end to a World Cup campaign, my eyes rested on a slight man dressed in bright yellow and holding the World Cup in his hands, with the widest grin on his face. In 121 balls of mayhem, the Australian captain destroyed the hopes of an expectant nation. At that moment, I hated Ricky Ponting in a very visceral way.

Funnily enough, till that point, Ponting aka Punter was one of my favorite international players. Three years earlier, I was fortunate enough to meet him in person when he had come to my school on a promotional visit. He was offering batting tips to a select few of the school cricket team, and the thing that struck me most about him was the grin. He was very cheerful, made us all feel at ease, cracked a few jokes in his Tasmanian accent (which most of us could not understand anyway!), and at the end, we all left feeling richer for the experience of interacting with a world class player who was surprisingly down to earth and relatable. From that day, he jostled with Jonty Rhodes and Wasim Akram for the spot of ‘my favorite international cricketer’.

All that changed on the evening of March 23, 2003. Since then, through the years, I have grown to dislike Punter. I have grudgingly acknowledged his successes, rejoiced in his failures and mocked his various mis-steps. He has played numerous memorable knocks (many of them against India!); knocks which stood out for their imperiousness, savagery and a brutal finality. Still, it was easier to dislike him than most other batting stars.

He fit the image of the ‘ugly Aussie’. There have been many finger-pointing incidents with umpires, and he was never shy of initiating a sledging contest with the opposition. He has shouted at the coach of the opposition,  broken a TV set in the dressing room, had on-field discord with team-mates; and I’m not even getting into the pre-2000 battle with alcohol, which he eventually overcame. All these were sufficient ammo for his detractors, including myself, because we had nothing else to go after; to put it simply, he was that good a batsman.

Ponting once said after the ill tempered 2007 series against India, “I don’t expect everyone to like me. I am here to do a job, and that is to win matches for Australia”. Well, he did that alright. For close to a decade, he was one of the best batsman of his generation and most of his records will stand the test of time. Like him or not, there was no disputing the quality of Ricky Ponting.

Over the last couple of years, my strong feelings have dissipated. His recent failures reminded me, that at the end of the day, he is a mere mortal whose powers are on the wane. Throughout the cricket world, people who once treated Ponting like their personal foe, started to feel sorry for him and wished that he would go out on a high. Being the proud man that he is, Ponting might have figured out that this was his cue to leave the arena.

Looking back, I can’t believe how much Ponting got in to my head over the years! Ever since that World Cup final loss in 2003, I looked forward to contests with Australia more than any other team. I wanted the Aussies to be thrashed, so that I could rejoice at the sight of a disappointed Ponting; because one look at his face after a loss, told one how much he hated to be on the losing side. In that respect, he gave me many occasions to gloat; Adelaide 2003, Mohali 2010, Ahmedabad 2011 – were all the sweeter as it came against Ponting’s Aussies. Of course, there is no shortage of the opposite results, where I have been absolutely disgusted about defeats, none more than the recent four nil drubbing last year.

Still, after a career spanning 17 years, Punter has earned my respect, if not my grudging admiration. As much as I loved to hate him for his excessive liking to Indian bowling and prickly behavior, it is hard to deny the fact that he made me that much more passionate about the game and inadvertently led me to appreciate his greatness. I won’t go as far as saying that there will be none like him, but I’m grateful that I got to witness the career of one of the most remarkable batsmen in the history of the game, warts and all.

Best wishes, Punter; you inglorious basterd.

 

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When Cummins kept going

Thanks for Cummins!

When Pat Cummins scored the winning runs off Imran Tahir in the 2nd and final test of the series, it signaled the birth of a star cricketer. At the tender age of 18, he made his Test debut against the World no. 2 and helped his team to a series-leveling victory, with both bat and ball. There had been a lot of hype surrounding him prior to this tour, but it is altogether a different task to actually meet those expectations. The ease with which he handled pressure situations while bowling in the 2nd innings, and when he came out to bat with a few runs to win, has confirmed hopes that he can stand the test of time and become a future great of the game. These are early days yet, but there is nothing wrong in dreaming.

Australia can thank Cummins and few others for the win; namely, the much maligned Ponting, Haddin and Johnson. The victory might have just bought them an extra series, but there is no doubt that Oz need to look beyond them. There is no  shortage of options with Khawaja, Wade and Pattinson available as ready-made replacements. Ponting is an exceptionally difficult case, as the likes of Dravid and Tendulkar have shown that temporary loss in form almost always makes way for permanent class; but how long can the selectors wait? It will be an interesting next few weeks for Australian cricket.

Oh, South Africa. Four home series have gone by and still they have not won one of them. For a team fighting for the top rank in international cricket, this is a staggering statistic. They have the batsmen, fast bowlers, spinner, keeper, captain and coach to make them a formidable side; and still, that final hurdle just cannot seem to be overcome. Fortunately for them, Sri Lanka is next. They have some serious issues if they cannot put it past the troubled Lankans. Also, Philander seems to have sealed the 3rd seamer’s spot ahead of Tsotsobe. Another debutant to have a dream start to his Test career.

Lastly, a mention about the 2-test ‘series’…..while there is no doubt that the contest between two equally matched sides deserves a minimum of 3 tests to sort out the better team, it was hard to fault the logic of the two boards. After all, while the internet buzzed with rage over the short series, there were hardly any spectators in the ground to justify an extra test; in any case, the revenue is mainly made from gate collections. Of course, the cricket boards have only themselves to blame for the obvious reasons. If all cricket boards can sort out these simple issues, the crowd will come. After all, I believe that Test cricket is not dying; its just the crowds for Test cricket, that is dying.

 

The Ahmedabad Redemption for Ponting and Yuvraj

As Yuvraj crashed the fourth ball of the 48th over to the boundary and sank to his knees in wild jubilation, 8 years of heartbreak and disappointment over the missed opportunity in the 2003 World Cup final came crashing down. For the millions of people whose dreams were crushed that day, the exit of Australia from the World Cup despite Ponting’s century would have been sweet revenge. It was not exactly a thriller to match the England-India game at Bangalore, but it had its shares of nail biting moments, thanks to some trademark Aussie grit and suicidal running by Gambhir; in the end, though, lack of quality spinners and disciplined fast bowlers cost the Aussies and India have set up a dream clash with Pakistan at Mohali next Wednesday.

There were a lot of key performers from both sides; Brad Haddin was the first to up the ante, while David Hussey gave the finishing touches in the Aussie innings. As for India, Zaheer Khan was at his usual best, giving his side timely breakthroughs. Ashwin took perhaps the most important wicket of all, when he castled Watson early, and was also surprisingly sharp on the field. Tendulkar was all class and Gambhir was steady throughout his innings except for the final moments extending to his dismissal. Raina’s selection ahead of Pathan proved to be a master stroke, as he repayed the faith in him, by hastening the Indian victory. Ultimately though, this game was about two men, who entered the tournament in desperate search of redemption and found it in the quarterfinal; albeit, with differing emotions at the end of the day.

Ricky Ponting is a tough nut. He has always been, and he will continue to be till the day he retires. He has had a rough couple of years, with poor form coinciding with a downward curve in the team’s fortunes. He entered the World Cup on the back of conceding the Ashes at home, and questions swirling around a possible retirement. No sooner had the Cup began, he got into the controversy over a damaged TV set after a dismissal against Zimbabwe, fell to old failings against Canada, displayed a shabby reaction after a misunderstanding with Steven Smith over a catch, and even managed to find himself in the middle of the eternal ‘walking’ debate. All this while rubbishing retirement talk every other day. A lesser man would have thrown his hands up in exasperation and grumbled over the injustice of it all. Instead, he kept stressing that a good innings was around the corner, and eventually knuckled down in the first knockout game of the World Cup for Australia and produced an innings of restraint and skill, which would have been enough on most days, if it was not for the lack of contributions from his team mates. Ponting might yet play for a while longer, and his innings showed that while he may not be the master of old, he still has the fire and hunger to go out on his own terms. A true champion deserves nothing less.

 

Which brings us to the biggest individual success story of the 2011 World Cup. A man who has been pilloried for the last few years over his weight, lack of fitness, attitude issues, and most importantly, poor form. Dropped from the Test team and temporarily removed from the ODI team, Yuvraj faced a crisis of confidence from where only he could redeem himself. After making an equally baffling return to the ODI side, he didn’t show any signs of what was to come till the tournament began. At the outset of the Cup, he was identified as the primary 5th bowler, even as there were grumblings over whether he even merited a place in the playing XI. After a silent game against the Bangladesh, he warmed up with a now forgotten 50 in the game against England. Then, he got into his stride, with both bat and ball against the lesser teams in the group. This was sandwiched by a failure in the game against South Africa, which raised murmurs that he could only raise his game against weaker opponents. That is what makes his performance against Australia that much more creditable. With the ball, he never really let the batsmen get away picking up the wickets of Haddin and Clarke in the process; but his defining moment came with the bat. He walked into a relative position of strength at 143/3 in the 29th over and saw it stumble to 187/5 after nine overs. With a batsman who was short on practice and confidence for company, he was tasked with shepherding his side to victory and a semifinal clash with their neighbors. The pressure was immense and the possibility of another choke very realistic; but this version of Yuvraj has a certain kind of steel, which has imbued all that the world can throw at him, and transforms him into some sort of venged warrior. He responded in thrilling fashion taking boundaries of Tait and Lee and inspiring Raina to play a blinder of his own. When he hit the winning runs, he let out a roar which was as much a release of all the years of pent up frustration as it was for the cherished victory over a mortal opposition. Redemption is rarely sweeter.

So, hats off to the two champions who performed in the backdrop of another thrilling encounter between these two sides. Their paths may diverge from this point on, but for a few hours on an Ahmedabad evening, it was their day (and night)!