In the immediate aftermath of Ricky Ponting's retirement announcement, the first image that came to mind was one that did grave injustice to his career as a whole, but yet seemed strangely fitting as a metaphor for his final months as an international cricketer.
It was of Ponting on all fours, felled not by the venom of a delivery, but by its guile. Beaten by the swing of a Jacques Kallis delivery at Adelaide, losing balance and falling. The image was apt because for the final years of his remarkable career, Ponting resembled a fallen giant. Fallen, yes, but a giant, nonetheless.
Nobody dominated Test match batting the way Ponting did in the 2000s, but personally, it was two of his One-Day International innings – played almost exactly nine years apart, both in World Cup matches, both against India – that defined him.
He pulverised India for 140 not out off 121 balls in the final of the 2003 World Cup on March 23 and then played a lone, defiant and ultimately losing hand of 104 off 118 in the quarterfinal of the 2011 World Cup on March 24.
The first innings was all majesty and pomp backed by flinty eyes. The second one was a battle against the elements and time. The flintiness remained, but the eyes weren't quite seeing the ball the way they had eight years ago.
As different as those innings were, they captured the arc Ponting's career has travelled. He began with a few ups and downs, and then hit a vein of form that saw him outstrip contemporaries. Later, he battled to maintain his own standards, before his career wound down.
The table below gives a snapshot of his Test career:
|Dec 1995 to Dec 1998||22||35||1209||36.64||17.50||3.89||2||7|
|Jan 1999 to Jan 2000||12||18||1024||73.14||3.60||2.25||5||3|
|Nov 2000 to Aug 2001||13||21||597||31.42||21.00||4.20||1||4|
|Nov 2001 to Jan 2007||63||109||6538||71.07||4.36||2.32||25||22|
|Nov 2007 to March 2010||34||60||2560||44.14||10.00||2.86||6||15|
|July 2010 to Dec 2012||24||44||1450||34.52||22.00||3.38||2||11|
Most evident from the table is that Ponting's zenith as a batsman overlapped almost perfectly with Australia's peak as a team. The 2006-07 season marked the retirements of Glenn McGrath, Shane Warne, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer and the start of Australia's decline. In the next period, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist and Brett Lee also departed, leaving Ponting very much the last man standing of the once-champion team.
This symbiotic Ponting-Australia form has sometimes raised questions about the batsman's place in the pantheon of greats. The argument put forth is that Ponting's peak was a product of the excellence around him. The flaw in that argument is, of course, that the cause-effect relation can be flipped. Perhaps, Ponting's class lifted those around him to greater heights.
Similar arguments aren't made of Sir Vivian Richards, for example. The King had at least as formidable a team around him as Punter did, but nobody questioned his place as the pre-eminent star among a galaxy of greats.
Ponting's persona may have something to do with it. He didn't always endear himself to spectators, but he probably set much larger store in winning matches than winning fans.
The tributes flowed after his retirement, with his last few years of struggle and a mellowing down accomplishing what years of dominance hadn't.
As it turns out, the years of dominance were remarkable even accounting for his team's strength. From November 2001 to January 2007, no Australian batsman scored more runs than Ponting, and the only one who had a higher average was Michael Hussey – who played only 16 Tests in that period. In fact, no batsman in the world scored more runs or had a higher average than Ponting.
In a champion team that dominated its era, Ponting was, by some distance, the best batsman.
There is no denying that the Australian team for large parts of Ponting's career has been a formidable one, and half of their strength – the batting – can be examined by the lens of Ponting's own dips and peaks.
The table below has the average of batsmen from one to seven for Australia and worldwide, set against Ponting's numbers.
|Ponting Avg||Aus Top 7 Avg||Difference %||World top 7 Avg||Difference %|
|Dec 1995 to Dec 1998||36.64||40.86||-10.33||34.94||4.87|
|Jan 1999 to Jan 2000||73.14||39.21||86.52||35.11||108.33|
|Nov 2000 to Aug 2001||31.42||46.69||-32.70||36.94||-14.94|
|Nov 2001 to Jan 2007||71.07||50.80||39.89||38.57||84.25|
|Nov 2007 to March 2010||44.14||46.22||-4.51||40.60||8.72|
|July 2010 to Dec 2012||34.52||36.89||-6.41||38.20||-9.61|
The Australian top seven have consistently averaged higher than worldwide, except in the last period. And during Ponting's peak, the Australian average is a scarcely believable 50.80. The fact that Ponting was sometimes behind the Australian top seven average, but ahead of the corresponding World top seven figures, shows just how much better Australia were than the rest.
It took some doing to be so far ahead of even his peers, for the longest stretch of his career.
In the fading twilight of a man brought to his knees on a cricket pitch, the dazzling sunshine of what went before must not be forgotten.
The first image that Ponting's retirement brought may be of him on his knees. The lasting image will be that of him leaving the WACA with arms raised, uniting opponents, team-mates and spectators in applause. He may have gone with his form dwindling and his team crashing to 309-run defeat. But he left a winner.