Two years ago in South Africa, Ricky Ponting led a touring party that was as green as the baggy cap to which the new players aspired. When they landed in Johannesburg, four members of the squad were yet to debut, while other newbies were still finding their feet after a home series loss to Graeme Smith’s men.
Throughout that trip, Ponting stood in the umpire’s place during net sessions and monitored his younger team-mates, dispensing advice and encouragement. When the first Test arrived, he positioned himself in the slips with debutants Marcus North and Phillip Hughes on either side of him, where once Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne had been.
Once upon a time, captain Ponting could steer the Australian ship through any conditions and rely on his experienced crew to help him find the way. Now he was teaching a new outfit, and avoiding the icebergs was naturally much trickier.
Winning that series was a wonderful achievement. That Ponting didn’t lead Australia to more successes in the couple of years that followed was not a shock. It would have been a surprise if the victories did pile up as they had when he could call on Warne, Hayden, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer et al.
Unlike Australia’s other recent captains, Ponting had to deal with two distinct eras of his reign – with champions and without. Will he be remembered for his unrivalled list of achievements as skipper? There were two World Cup triumphs, Australia’s first Ashes whitewash in 86 years, a record-equalling 16 consecutive Test victories, and a couple of Champions Trophies for good measure.
Or will it be the fact that he was the first Australian captain in more than a century to lose three Ashes series? Will the mention of his name bring to mind the acrimony of the Sydney Test in 2007-08, when Australia’s slide was beginning? How will the nine-year, two-stage Ponting era be considered in years to come?
He should be remembered as a fine captain with a wonderful record, though not without flaws. At the end of the 2006-07 Ashes clean-sweep, when Australia farewelled Warne, McGrath and Langer, Ponting had only endured three losses in his 35 Tests in charge. After that point, Australia played another 42 Tests under Ponting and won exactly half.
Compare that to Graeme Smith, whose South Africans have won only 45% of their Tests under his leadership. In their day, Michael Vaughan and Hansie Cronje were highly regarded leaders, the latter’s match-fixing scandal notwithstanding, and they each only won 50% of their Tests in charge.
After the champions left, Ponting’s team became normal. Not terrible. Not substandard. Normal. They could have plummeted into freefall, like West Indies after their dominant era came to an end. Instead, Ponting held them together well enough to enjoy away series wins over South Africa, West Indies and New Zealand, as well as home successes against India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, West Indies and New Zealand.
And as great as the men surrounding him were in the opening years of his leadership, they may not have achieved what they did without an uncompromising captain, committed to complete domination. It was a trait Ponting learned under Steve Waugh, the master of mental disintegration. But unlike Waugh, Ponting eventually had a team that couldn’t always back it up.
There were times when his on-field leadership lacked imagination. Like a horse wearing blinkers, Ponting was prone to bouts of tunnel-vision. The 2009 Ashes might have been different had he trusted his best bowlers in the final hour in Cardiff, instead of the spin of North and Nathan Hauritz, and in Nagpur a year earlier he had made similar strange decisions by allowing Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke to bowl when a victory could have been set up.
But no captain is without his faults, and Ponting’s team-mates were fiercely loyal to him, the sign of a leader respected by his troops. Australia’s gradual slip from all-conquering to just all right did not happen because of Ponting. The retirement of stars, a decline in the standard of domestic cricket and the selection panel’s poor handling of the spin-bowling stocks were important factors.
Even in the difficult Test times, Ponting managed to keep his one-day international team at the top of the ICC’s rankings, which was no small achievement. It was appropriate that his final act as captain was a fighting century in the World Cup, eight years after he lifted the trophy for the first time as leader, having made a brilliant 140 in the final.
When he announced his resignation, Ponting nominated that 2003 World Cup, when a Warne-less team went through undefeated, as his fondest captaincy memory. Even more remarkable was the way he lifted his men to another perfect World Cup in the Caribbean in 2007, given the poor form his one-day side had displayed in the months prior.
Achievements like that must be remembered. In Ponting’s nine years in charge, Australia’s low points were miserable, but their highs were unparalleled. Like Ponting the batsman, Ponting the captain deserves to be held in great esteem. His successor will be grateful to do half as well.