Hail to a legend

Cowan and Ponting

IT seemed as if there was no escaping him. When my teammates and I arrived in the dressing room at Bellerive Oval ahead of the recent Test match there, a name tag above a seat read “Ricky Ponting”.

It was, however, the space allocated to him by Tasmania, whose dressing room the Test team was using. Ricky himself, whom all of us had grown up watching before having the privilege of playing alongside him, was of course not there, having ended his 17-year career two weeks earlier.

It was more than just a funny feeling. It was confronting.

Cricket teams are like families. This one had lost its big brother – the one everyone looked up to, the one who set the standards, who made sure things were right.

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Ponting was a presence at the ground, of course.

He did a lap of honour in the back of a ute at lunch on the first day, jokingly asking the driver to put his boot to the accelerator to save his embarrassment.

His appearance included, as had his last Test in Perth, a guard of honour. On the former occasion it had been arranged by Graeme Smith, South Africa’s Test captain and maker of 26 Test hundreds.

On this occasion, it was formed by club-mates from Mowbray Cricket Club, including Clint Reid, whose five on the previous weekend had not been enough to set a competitive target against Georgetown.

Few cricketers I can think of could be counted eligible to enjoy both such tributes – one from professional peers, the other from amateur friends. It is a mark of the player, and of the man.

Otherwise, we were left on our own. Never again will we see that pull shot – the press forward, the rock back, the bat wielded high above the back shoulder like a sword, gaining pace as the wrists uncoil for impact; the balancing swivel on the back foot signalling perfect completion, like a diver creating minimal splash.

It was a shot that was also a definition – combative, aggressive, ruthless and pro-active, signifying how the Australian team played the game. Ponting didn’t duck, he swung. He took the game on. Every time.

From the very beginning, too. My favourite story of Ponting was retold to the Tasmanian team at the Adelaide Oval two seasons ago, when we faced a formidable first innings.

The chairman of selectors recounted the response to a similar predicament from the 18-year-old Ponting. “Right-o youse blokes,” Ponting told his team-mates at the warm-ups. “If all of you get 20 each, I will get the rest.” And he did.

Ponting retained a fabulously succinct sense of playing the game. In my first Test a year ago – the Boxing Day Test – he came down the pitch for a conference soon after he came in. What would he say, I wondered? What worldly wisdom would he offer? What could I learn from this master of the game, the best since Bradman? “Going all right mate?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“Keep hitting it in the middle,” he said, and turned back.

End of conversation.

I was struck by the simplicity of it all. It could have been a Chinese proverb. We could have been playing fifth grade in Launceston rather than centre stage at the Melbourne Cricket Ground in front of 80,000 people.

I now know this was Ponting in his world. He expected to hit it in the middle. He expected you to hit it in the middle as well.

I will never forget the look in his eye when Australia won that Test. I was excited, of course, but the debutant and the veteran could have easily been mistaken for one another.

Ponting liked making runs. But what he really liked was winning cricket matches. It was absolutely everything to him. On the eve of the Sheffield Shield final earlier this year, soon after Sachin Tendulkar had recorded his 100th international hundred, I joked with Ricky that he only had 29 to go and plenty of time up his sleeve.

He looked at me dead pan. “Seriously, you don’t think I give a toss about hundreds, do you?”

Ponting began to reel off all the trophies and honours Australia had won during his career.

Not his own contributions, mark you, but those of the team and its garlands.

What will mean more than anything to Ponting, I think, will not be his runs, or his hundreds, but the record 110 Test wins he participated in, every one of which he celebrated with exactly the same joy.

Cricket was his world: reeling off grade scores from the newspaper; picking up every single bat in the change room to see “how it feels”; and throwing balls for hours to anyone who asked, he gave himself completely to the game of cricket.

Cricket was his education. He joined it as a boy and learned life’s lessons with everyone watching. It did not make him cynical but rather, wise. He became an eloquent, worldly and intelligent man.

Cricket is in his debt. But I sense that Ponting feels the reverse – that he is the one indebted to the game, and as much to the maroon baseball cap of Mowbray as to the revered Baggy Green. To have played cricket with him strikes me – as it does every Australian player – as simply extraordinary.

Last year, I was in my childhood home in Sydney and happened to walk into what had been my bedroom as a boy. Virtually everything, of course, had changed. Not even the poster of Katie Holmes had made it through the years.

Only two items survived: my poster of Ponting and a motivational quote about persistence attached to it.

A few weeks ago, I was at the wicket at the WACA when Ponting walked on to the ground to receive his great farewell.

I joined the South African players to applaud him in. Arthur Morris always jokes that nobody remembers it was him at the other end when Donald Bradman played his last Test, at the Oval in 1948. I dare say nobody will remember that I was at the other end when Ponting came in and went out that day, but I will. And in the Australian dressing room for as long as the members of this team play there will be a place reserved in his memory.


Ed Cowan – The Australian

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