Ponting, a true sport
Posted in npower Ashes Series 2009
Comparisons with football seem de rigueur whenever cricket finds itself on the front pages as well as the back.
Such occasions are sufficiently rare that we have learnt to cherish them, and only the most one-eyed football fan could complain when the TV news bulletins begin with a tribute to England’s Ashes heroes.
Graeme Swann told ECBtv he was delighted to see England’s cricketers do their bit to keep football in the shade - albeit until another fair-to-middling Premier League club signs a nondescript defensive midfielder - while Steve Harmison made the analogy that England’s series triumph was like a team sneaking a 1-0 win despite enjoying precious little possession.
You could argue that Harmison was doing himself and his colleagues a disservice. Admittedly, Australia dominated the Cardiff Test without forcing victory, and demolished England at Headingley, but the hosts were deserved winners at Lord’s, bossed much of the Edgbaston contest, and an England victory at the Brit Oval was the only likely result from the second afternoon onwards.
What’s more, the image of a side with 10 men camped in their own half, hoping to pinch a breakaway goal, could not contrast more starkly with the nature of a pulsating series in which both sides wrested the balance of power from each other like two brothers bickering over an Action Man toy.
Perversely, when England adopted a defensive mindset it made for the most compelling cricket: I was as nervous as I’ve ever been watching sport when James Anderson and Monty Panesar were blocking out for a draw in the opening Test at Cardiff, a finale on a par with Edgbaston and Trent Bridge in 2005.
As the dust settled on another pulsating series - do we do it any other way in this country? - all the key figures were in agreement that the efforts of England’s number 10 and 11 on that memorable evening in the Welsh capital were central to their Ashes success. The turning point, as they say.
From the Andrew Flintoff-inspired heights of Lord’s, to the depths of an innings defeat at Headingley, and back to the top of their game at the Oval, England have exhibited all the consistency of an undercooked blancmange.
Captain Andrew Strauss admitted as much as he turned his attention to becoming the best side in the world, and it said much for their capacity to implode - as well as the English psyche - that the prospect of an Australia win could not be discounted until yesterday afternoon, when Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke fell in the space of six balls.
Surely only in England could a sizeable chunk of the population even be contemplating defeat when their team had a 545-run lead to defend in the fourth innings on a pitch resembling the crust of a Mr Kipling apple pie (Apologies for the food references; it’s approaching tea-time).
That English celebrations were put on hold for so long owed much to Ponting, who hit a majestic 66, and Mike Hussey, his partner in a 127-run stand for the third wicket.
Hussey’s 121 was an innings of immeasurable skill and staggering fortitude given his travails with the bat in this series, and quite possibly saved his Test career.
Ponting’s contribution, meanwhile, stretched well beyond his exploits on the field (for the record, he was the third highest run-scorer in the series with 385 at an average of 48).
He may have become only the second Australia captain after Billy Murdoch to lose the Ashes twice on English soil, and he is sure to return home to be greeted by the usual damning assessments of his captaincy from former players.
Ponting, however, can board the flight back with his head held high.
He can be proud of his achievements with the bat, even if he chastised himself for not making enough “big scores". He can be proud that he refused to rise to the boo-boys at Edgbaston and Headingley (a sorry addition to the modern game for which we can thank football).
Above all, he can be proud of the manner in which he has led his side in the heat of an Ashes battle.
The occasional aggressive querying of an umpiring decision apart (a lack of respect for authority is his biggest failing, in my humble opinon), Ponting has behaved impeccably over the last two months.
His press conferences are marked with a clarity of thought, humour and authority lacking in so many modern sportsmen, and the graciousness he showed at the post-match presentation ceremony, when he discussed Australia’s shortcomings and England’s achievements with admirable honesty, was a lesson to amateurs and professionals alike.
Excuse me if I’m labouring the point, but how many football managers would do the same? (And please don’t claim that because the rewards are greater in football, the men in charge are under more pressure. Nothing is more important to an Australian sportsman than the Ashes, especially for a man as fiercely proud as Ponting.)
So Ponting leaves these shores minus the urn, and with another scar for his troubles - on his lip, to complement the one Steve Harmison inflicted on his cheek in 2005 - but with his reputation as a person enhanced.
One of the most heart-warming aspects of the final Test was the ovation Ponting received before and after his sterling innings.
At 34, the chances are that this will be his last Ashes tour. Rest assured, we will miss him.