Perhaps the most brutal aspect of boxing, the most brutal of popular sports, is watching the defeated heavyweight leave the ring. Head bowed, face battered and ego stripped bare, he knows it’s a moment when the oncoming trauma will far outlast the physical pain.
Ricky Ponting bowed out at Motera yesterday, going down swinging and scrapping to the very end. As usual, he was booed. He’s usually too tough a nut to let that affect him but yesterday, for the first time, it looked like it hurt. After 68 international centuries, 26000 runs, 3 world cups and the honour of being the most successful captain in test history, it looks like it’s all over for him, and maybe he felt he deserved a little better. Above all, I think it was the thought that he might never play for and fight for Australia again that was hurting him the most.
It’s fair enough to say that he’s asked for the booing over the years. He’s been found punched out outside a pub, turned up to matches with a black eye, been thrown out of nightclubs, accused of blatantly cheating, caught abusing other players, scathed by critics for not walking and got pulled up for questioning authority many a time. He’s borne the brunt of his own people’s flak for losing the Ashes to the old enemy home and away, been blamed of letting the Aussie aura slip away after a decade of dominance and now is on record as the captain who relinquished Australia’s vice-like grip on cricket’s most prized trophy. He’s been in the forefront of a time when Australia has become the most hated cricket team across the globe. Often, we cheered not because England won the Ashes or because South Africa chased down 434, but because Australia lost. He was in charge of the most ruthless, win-at-all-costs team playing the game, the price for that was to assume the mantle of being the most hated man in cricket, and he took it on.
In between this, there was a time when he was also the best batsman in the world. He was a key cog in a machine that changed the way test cricket was played. During the middle of this decade, even some Tendulkar-worshipping critics were forced to concede that Punter was the better bat at the moment, and seemed the only visible threat to Sachin’s invincible record. He also led Australia to two world cup triumphs without losing a single game. He terrorized batsman with his fielding, often walking up to stand under the batsman’s nose at silly point (has there ever been a more apt name for a fielding position in sport!) without shin guards and helmet, staring at batsman with a fearless squint. Soon, he inherited a legendary team from Steve Waugh, and racked up a captaincy record that once read 36 wins and 3 losses.
After the dream start, Father Time struck him a blow that no team could have possibly recovered from. Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Mathew Hayden and Damien Martyn walked away into the sunset almost together, leaving Ricky Ponting with a rebuilding mission close to impossible. Some of them continued to play cricket in the IPL, where national honour was not at stake and millions were up for grabs. Ponting, on the contrary, ignored the lure of the IPL circus, and became one of its most outspoken critics. Cash over country was not his cup of tea. It’s easy to forget that he could have walked away from the captaincy around this time, given that the much-hyped Michael Clarke was waiting in the wings. Ponting’s pedigree as a batsman was never in question then like it is now, and he could have continued doing what he does best without the headache of nurturing a young team. But he chose to battle on, and as hard as he tried, his troops couldn’t match up to a resurgent England, a dominating South Africa and a rising India.
Cricket Australia has a reputation for ruthlessness, dropping players like Dean Jones, Ian Healy, the Waugh twins and Michael Bevan without so much as a thank you. But they gave Ponting an extended run, maybe because Michael Clarke’s promise was waning but primarily because Ponting’s ambitions were genuine. He truly believed that he could steer Australia through these turbulent times, and they didn’t doubt his integrity and toughness. But he’s failed, and the time’s up.
Neil Young crooned that it’s better to burn out than to fade away, asking people to go out with a bang and not a whimper. Ricky Ponting has faded away, but yesterday at Ahmedabad when the rest of his team struggled in a cauldron of noise and heat, he burnt bright one last time to show us what we are going to miss.