A bet, a beer and a bat

The maturing of Ricky Ponting has been a long and uncertain process, but if Australia survive the unrest of their campaign to lift the trophy, it may be time to proclaim that the journey is complete.

It has been tempting during Ponting’s captaincy of Australia’s one-day side to define him as much by what he is not as by what he is. His tenacious leadership is not praised in the same terms as Allan Border; he has not been lauded as a wondrous tactician in the mould of Mark Taylor; no one has begun to suggest, as they have of the Test captain Steve Waugh, that he builds lives as much as he builds teams.

There has been a sense that he forever remains only one indiscretion away from holding up his hands and saying, OK, I never really was cut out for the job. But that sense is diminishing by the day.

If Ponting has yet to win overall approval, the trust of his players speaks volumes.
Amid countless distractions he has maintained a togetherness and purpose that has brought two wins of ominous certainty.

Pakistan and India are both as talented as they are unpredictable, and sensing Australia’s potential disorder, both sought to talk them out of their stride. The result—first against Pakistan, then against India—was two resounding Australian wins that made them arguably the hottest World Cup favourites yet.

Ponting’s public persona can rarely have been cheerier than immediately after Australia’s trouncing of India, a result so overwhelming that posters of his rival captain, Sourav Ganguly, were burned in the streets of Calcutta and a campaign to boycott all products endorsed by India’s players was launched.

“Things were a bit tough before the first game,” Ponting said, “but we sat down as a group to talk about all the issues and ensure we entered the games with fresh and clear minds. The players have been able to go into the games without any distractions. We knew these would be the two toughest games in our group.”

As well as Shane Warne’s positive dope test, and the speculation that followed, Australia have faced the distraction of the debate over whether they should play in Zimbabwe. The suspension of Darren Lehmann for racially abusing Sri Lankan players has also upset them.

It has been precisely Ponting’s unwillingness, perhaps his inability, to delve into these moral issues too deeply that has proved his forte. His focus has been entirely upon Australia’s World Cup challenge—and the Australian nation, believing that is the province of the man in charge, has encouraged such tunnel vision. He used to just make runs, now he captains as well.

So Ponting is able to say with total clarity “we will be heading to Zimbabwe, hopefully to win a game of cricket there, and stay near the top of the table” and nobody cares to press him on his beliefs.

It has been left to others, such as Adam Gilchrist, a man who found the joint demands of captaincy and wicketkeeping too onerous a task, to admit to a sense of disquiet.

Ponting’s authority is helped by his commanding on-field presence. When Australia lost early wickets against Pakistan, while details of the Warne scandal were being gossiped around the ground, he batted with enterprise and conviction. Suitably, the rescuing hundred came from Andrew Symonds, a powerful but unreliable all-rounder whom Ponting had championed.

The one-day captain is a man from a humble Tasmanian background, with straightforward tastes: a bat, a bet, a beer. As a teenager he was hailed by Rodney Marsh, then Australia’s academy coach, as the best batting prospect he had seen, but few suggested then that he was captain material.

Ponting got into scrapes. One, in the Bourbon and Beefsteak bar in Sydney, an early-morning altercation with a rugby league bouncer and a drag artist, led him to concede he had a drink problem and undergo anger-management counselling. Another escapade followed in Calcutta.

“If you do not have a temper and aggression at my age, then when would you have it?” he asked. “I am aware that I have to control it, whether or not I ever become Australian captain. I have committed a few mistakes but I have come out of it a lot wiser human being.”

Ponting’s grit is Australia’s grit: a fierce pride in representing his country, a belief in winning at any cost, and a genuine belief in the team ethic that states that the success of the individual is dedicated to the achievement of the team and the country.—

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