Punters last bet

Written by Shamik Chakrabarty | Shamik Chakrabarty | Updated: Dec 2 2012, 09:27am hrs
For such a big player, Ricky Ponting never had a big ego. In 2008, when he came to play for the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) in the inaugural season of the IPL, he became a hit among the local boys. Initially, the young players, most of them had never played international cricket, were in awe of the Aussie master. But Ponting walked the extra mile to break the barriers. One day, after a net session, he took Laxmi Ratan Shukla aside. The Bengal player had tried to play a couple of pull shots but was not getting the pivot. Ponting had noticed that and then for the next half an hour he was at work as a wide-eyed Shukla just followed the instructions. To this day, Shukla says that it was his best cricketing moment as he learnt to play the pull shot from someone who has had a copyright over the stroke.

Ponting played only four matches for KKR before returning to lead Australia. But by the time he left, he became the most popular man in the camp. Shukla still gets a reply from his hero whenever he sends him a text message, asking for any cricketing help. By the time the IPL arrived, Ponting had already spent 13 years on the circuit. From a talented but brash young cricketer, he grew into his job to become one of the best ever.

Pontings early days were more about controversies. On the field, he always performed, but off it, he had a tendency to go a little too far while letting his hair down. He had issues with a bouncer at a Kolkata nightclub when Mark Taylors Australia came here in 1998. He also failed with the bat in that series as his team suffered an innings defeat. Questions were raised about his temperament and also his ability to make it big. Maybe it was a case of an overdose of attention as a young Ricky Ponting was struggling to come to terms with the pressure and fame. He hit the bottle. After a brawl in the famous Bourbon and Beefsteak bar in Sydney, Cricket Australia intervened.

Ponting was tipped to become the next big thing in Australian cricket when Rodney Marsh spotted him as a teenager and nurtured his talent at the Cricket Academy. Zimbabwes Murray Goodwin was his roomie at the Academy and even in those early days he predicted at least a 10-year top-level career for Ponting. Goodwin himself was talented enough to play for Zimbabwe. But Ponting was in a different league altogether. Ponting owes a thanks to his cricket board. Without their intervention, Ponting could have ended up as a wayward genius.

After that brawl in the Sydney bar, Cricket Australia came down hard, which helped Ponting move away from a life that bordered on the reckless. And once he put his mind completely into cricket, he was destined to become a champion. It is a futile exercise to compare the greats. Ponting, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Jacques Kallis and Rahul Dravid formed a super-elite group of batsmen for the major part of the last two decades. Tendulkar and Kallis are now the last two men standing. His 41 Test hundreds and 30 ODI hundreds place Ponting second behind Tendulkars combined total of 100 centuries. But maybe the Australian was the one who fired more consistently in the big matches and finals.

His 156 in the fourth innings at Old Trafford in 2005 to save the match is his favourite Ashes hundred. Also up in the list is his century in the 2003 World Cup final that decimated Sourav Gangulys India. Winning was everything for Ponting and he gave a damn if people called him ruthless. Sometimes his aggression almost turned into animosity but Ponting didnt mind as long as his team was winning. His record of 47 Test victories and 34 consecutive wins in World Cup matches as captain is unlikely to be matched. Yes, he had the privilege of leading one of the greatest ever sides in the history of the game after he inherited it from Steve Waugh. But it was a tough job as well. The beauty about Pontings leadership was that even the greats like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath never had any issues playing under him. Ponting was liked by all his illustrious team mates because he represented everything that was Australia. As Daniel Brettig pointed out in his wonderful article, he was the soul of Australian cricket.

Many say Australia started to lose their cutting edge after Ponting was asked to mend his ways following the monkeygate. It was an incident that had put the 2007-08 series between India and Australia on the line and threatened to sour the diplomatic relations between the two countries. Ponting had to adjust, but without the aggression, he was not quite the captain he used to be. Also, as the other top players departed en masse, Ponting was left alone to lead a team in transition. He started to taste defeats and ended up as being the only Australian captain to lose the Ashes three times. But then, as Sunil Gavaskar has said, legends are known by their achievements, not for what they couldnt achieve. Ponting was a celebrity but he never put himself above the team. This is the reason why even the lure of an eighth Ashes series couldnt stop him from calling it quits. He thought that on the basis of his present performance he didnt merit a place in the team and decided to leave. The decision speaks volumes of a man who, for 17 years and 168 Test matches, played with pride and never compromised with the standards he had set. Not often is a player accompanied by the entire team and his teary-eyed captain when he announces his retirement. Very rarely does a Parliament call a halt to the proceedings to celebrate the career of a sportsperson. Ponting was that special.

Warne nicknamed him Punter for his penchant for putting money on greyhound racing. After this season, Ponting will get a lot of time to get back to his favourite pastime. Offers will certainly come to join his former team mates at the Channel 9 commentary box. He can take that offer or he can follow Steve Waugh and give his life to philanthropy. Ponting has his own cancer foundation and, surely, he will now devote a lot more time to the charity. But that is for the future. At the moment, as he will walk into a golden sunset at WACA, fans, for one last time, will celebrate the joie-de-vivre that Ponting brought into the game. Cricket will miss one of its great ambassadors.