FINALLY, Ricky Ponting has taken off the helmet. Both the one that provided protection against lethal fast bowling, and the metaphorical version used to keep the world at bay.
To most, Ponting’s long momentous career ended last December in Perth after his farewell Test, or with his final Sheffield Shield appearance for Tasmania. It says something about how cricket grew and fragmented during the great batsman’s career that his final appearance was actually in August for the Antigua Hawksbills in the Caribbean Premier League.
For the record, the Hawksbills were beaten by the Guyana Amazon Warriors and Ponting did not bat. ‘’To be honest, I got halfway through the Caribbean thing and wondered what I was doing there,’’ says Ponting, who had already abandoned thoughts of playing for Tasmania this summer.
So, finally, the cricket carousel has stopped spinning. Ponting has moved from Sydney to Melbourne, having impressed upon wife Rianna the benefits of the excellent schools in beachside Brighton – and, you suspect, concealed the allure of the areas famed sand belt golf courses.
Now, sitting in his agent’s Port Melbourne office, Ponting is preparing to embark on a different kind of tour. This one to promote his soon to be released memoirs ‘At The Close Of Play’.
As a cricketer, Ponting always seemed more adept at deflection than reflection. He was direct, honest and straightforward, but not one to dwell on the past.
In writing about his life, he was forced to contemplate in detail the many triumphs, the occasional disappointments and re-visit the occasional controversies. It also allowed him to re-live a happy but truncated childhood.
‘’Moving away from Launceston at 15 and going to the Cricket Academy, being a professional cricketer pretty much for 21 years; because everything was so constant I never had a chance to think about what had happened,’’ says Ponting. ‘’It was always about what the day would bring. Being able to reflect on my club cricket and my childhood, it was almost like re-living it all which was great.’’
Beyond the entertaining account of Ponting’s life and career, one of the most striking recurring themes in ‘At The Close Of Play’ is the gradual change of culture in the Australian team as both a generational change, and a change in fortunes, takes place.
Revealingly, upon entering the jubilant and tight-knit South African rooms after his final Test, Ponting laments: ‘’We used to be like that.’’
‘’That was a real eye-opener that night,’’ he says now. ‘’That was the last night of my international career as it turned out. Just seeing the fun they were having in their rooms. Yes, they just won a Test match and they’d won a series in Australia so they had every right to celebrate.
‘’They’ve got a very experienced group of players that has been together for a long time. Our team in the last five or six has been changing so much, it’s left to a few guys to uphold that culture and the way we used to be.’’
Winning makes everything better, and Australia has done far less of that. But Ponting wonders if the emphasises on a ‘’high performance’’ environment has made it more difficult to create tight bonds in the sheds.
‘’It’s got to the point guys are a bit scared to enjoy themselves around the team which is not the way I knew it,’’ he says. ‘’There weren’t too many guys who were scared about having a few beers. I think some of the young blokes in particular good a bit afraid to be themselves and be the people they were around certain people around our team.’’
Ponting writes about the Nerds v Julios tenpin bowling nights and even the poetry recitals – Ponting is no modern-day Wordsworth – organised by Steve Waugh to build harmony. But he wonders how much ‘’team spirit’’ can be manufactured.
‘’It just comes from within the individual,’’ he says. ‘’You either want to be part of a successful team culture or you can’t be bothered. You talk about the generational change. Younger guys are probably not willing to put in the time to do these things as we once were. That’s just society.’’
Throughout ‘At The Close Of Play’, Ponting’s attitude toward discipline is starkly at odds with the current less forgiving approach. After his own early alcohol-related indiscretions, he talks of how senior players such as Ian Healy had put an arm around him. Later, he was fiercely supportive of Shane Warne, Andrew Symonds and others who stepped out of line.
Now, as the ‘’Homeworkgate’’ saga and David Warner’s recent travails have demonstrated, there is a ‘’tough love’’ – even a zero tolerance – policy. Players are banished, not nurtured.
‘’The environment was all about looking after each other, protecting each other, not hanging them out to dry which I think has been happening,’’ says Ponting. ‘’I always wanted to let the guys know I had their back. I’d been looked after well during a couple of times when I was suspended from the team and, potentially, not coming back to play again.
‘’A lot of young blokes who come into Australian cricket, they are kids really, they haven’t lived life and they are trying to live their lives in the spotlight of international sport. Sometimes to have everything taken away is not the best thing for them, sometimes you can help them out along the way and tell them everything’s OK. You’ll get a whole lot more back than doing it the other way.’’
Again, winning solves many problems. When Ponting’s first class career began the Australian batting line-up was Mark Taylor, Michael Slater, David Boon, Mark Waugh, Allan Border, Steve Waugh. Waiting in the wings were Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Matthew Hayden, Michael Bevan, Greg Blewett, Brad Hodge, Ponting and others.
Is the current dearth of great batting talent generational or systemic?
‘’After God knows how many years of us telling them that’s what they had to do, there’s still not enough money paid for coaches,’’ says Ponting, who compares the many experienced ex-Test batsmen in the English ranks – Andy Flower, Graham Gooch, Graham Thorpe – with the very few in Australia’s Test and Shield set-up.
‘’An ex-international here, he can make more from one speaking gig than from a week’s coaching,’’ says Ponting, who can see a role for himself in the future helping to groom young players for their entry to top level cricket.
For now, however, it is helmets off. With no regrets about the journey, or how it ended.
‘’I talk about this in the book, but purely and simply what I had was not good enough to be an international player,’’ says Ponting. ‘’It’s not as if I walked away thinking I had three or four years left in me. My output wasn’t good enough, so it made the retirement pretty easy.”