Ricky Ponting can hit backfoot shots past the bowler. Hardly a man alive can play this stroke; Sachin Tendulkar, Steve Waugh sometimes, and that's about it.
Playing as a 16-year-old at the lovely Oval, built under the bridge in north Sydney, Ponting produced this stroke and observers knew another gifted youngster had been found. The system works that way in Australia. News about the discovery of a fresh talent spreads as quickly as a bush fire. Ponting's card was marked. Although the Tasmanian has suffered a few setbacks in the intervening years, his career has flourished and he has become a force in both forms of the game. His record speaks for itself. Now he arrives in the West Indies as an exciting batsman and respected leader.
Nothing in Ponting's background suggested mastery of the most difficult shot in the book. He was not tutored in the game by an eminent coach, was not raised in a cricketing hothouse and did not attend an academy till a few more summers had passed. Somehow the stroke seemed to flow from him as an expression of a natural talent. Those watching Ponting in his early days felt he had been born with a bat in his hand, for he handled it like a musical instrument. From the start he had that innate sense of the length of a ball and the appropriate response that is common amongst the great batsmen. If he falls short of the very highest class it will be due more to impatience than any limitations in his game. He belongs to a long tradition of Australian batsman that hook and cut fearlessly; a dance down the pitch and set about the bowling with the aggression that characterises the way games are played in that demanding country.
Ponting had to force his way to the top. He was born and raised in Mowbray, a blue collar suburb of Launceston, the second largest city in an obscure island often forgotten when maps of the country are drawn. In some respects it was a sheltered upbringing, far from the madding crowd. Until recently he lived at home with his family and it took him years to learn to drive. Not that background matters as much Down Under as it does elsewhere, for it has always been a democratic game. Whereas in England private schools and old universities have been influential, in Australia it is the clubs that count. Anyone can join; anyone can play and the a man goes as far as his abilities allow.
Tasmania shaped but did not restrict him, for he had the confidence needed to escape its confines. For a hundred years this pastoral island was better known for its convict history and beauty than for sporting prowess. Not until David Boon broke through in the middle of the 1980s did Tasmania make its mark upon Australian cricket. Boon was a stubborn, rugged and proud batsman who paved the way for his fellow islanders. Nowadays Tasmanians can be found in all corners of the cricketing world, captaining county teams, touring and coaching.
Ponting followed in Boon's wake. More gifted than his predecessor, the younger man occupied the same position in the batting order as his elder. In many ways, he reflected the new Australian approach. Whereas Boon was raised in hard times and built an impenetrable wall around his wicket, Ponting is bristling and bold and sets out to dictate terms as soon as he arrives at the crease.
In his first Test against Sri Lanka, in Perth, he imposed himself upon the bowling and reached the nineties only to be dispatched by a visiting umpire, convinced the ball was lower than it seemed to the batsman's father or anyone else in the stands. Nonetheless, Ponting demonstrated that he was not intimidated by circumstances. This was not a shy country boy from the backwaters; this was a young man who felt he belonged in the highest company.
Soon afterwards, Ponting faced the West Indians in Brisbane and immediately accepted their invitations to hook. Ever since, he has played this shot with relish. In this regard, and many others, he resembles Ian Chappell, an uncompromising batsman who hooked even when his grandmother told him to desist. By now Ponting had established himself in the field. He wanted to be in the thick of the action, and bustled around clapping, urging on his team mates and offering advice to his captain.
From the start he displayed an acute tactical brain and a strong competitive streak. Sachin Tendulkar was the same in his younger days; his mind racing, a desire to be involved, and captains used to send him to third man in the interests of peace and tranquility. Ponting's enthusiasm was embraced and observers suggested he might develop into a leader. Most thought he would have to wait longer because there was a lot of growing up to do.
On the field, Ponting was a lively character, an adventurous spirit not easily contained. Off the field, he was the same and it put him in hot water. In those days he had a rough tongue, a taste for liquor and a fondness for a scrap. Eventually, his conduct led to headlines on the front pages of the Australian newspapers. Another man might have ducked and weaved, complaining about intrusion and exaggeration. Ponting did nothing of the sort. Instead, he confronted his demons, called a press conference, admitted his mistakes and thanked reporters for their discretion. It was an impressive performance and clearly identified Ponting as an ambitious and capable man. No squealing from him!
Almost overnight, he emerged as a mature young man. Not that he has become monastic or anything as dull as that. He is a man of simple pleasures, who enjoys a drink, backs horses, owns racing dogs and follows the footy. He does not pretend sagacity or sophistication but realises that cricket is played in a turbulent world and that an international captain has responsibilities beyond his team and its results.
Nowadays, he is honest and direct, but also thoughtful. His schoolmasters must be astonished by the improvement shown by the little brat who kept skipping class. Ponting has become a senior man in the Australian side. Already, as seasoned an observer, Tom Moody had named him as the next captain. As a batsman, he had endured fallow periods, especially against the Indian spinners as he plunged forward and was snapped up at short leg. Now and then his footwork let him down against faster bowlers whereupon he drove stiff-legged and was leg before or caught behind the wicket. He does not make many bad runs. Once his game is working the runs flow.
Significantly, he never took a backward step and, instead, set about correcting the fault. On song, Ponting is a crisp strokemaker who scores off both feet and on both sides of the wicket. Off colour, he loses his wicket cheaply. He is rarely dull and hardly ever defensive. West Indians will enjoy him.
Last year, the Australian selectors decided to replace Steve Waugh as captain of their fifty-overs team. By their reckoning, a younger man was needed. Several candidates were considered, including Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne; experienced players and amongst the greatest players the game has known. Ponting was chosen, a tribute to his standing amongst his peers. Patently, the selectors believed their nomination could take command in the rooms and win the support of older players. Their confidence has been justified by events. Ponting has taken to the job like a duck to water. Along the way he has not hesitated to tell Brett Lee that economy is required from bowlers hoping to retain their position in the one-day side. Asked whether Warne had been naive to take pills he replied "or stupid". He has not spared himself or his men. The spirit of the team could be seen from its astonishing victory over England in the early stages of the World Cup.
From humble beginnings the Tasmanian has developed into a fine batsman and an impressive leader. He is a young man still and has a lot more runs to score and teams to captain. He is popular, aggressive and unselfish and he is going to be around a long time and will end with an outstanding record. He has had the courage and ability to move beyond his origins, to take on the world and to impose his will upon it, his team and numerous attacks around the cricketing globe.