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Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ponting: The best since Bradman

Questions were being asked of the Australia captain, Ricky Ponting, as he led his team into the series with India. His brilliant century in the first Test suggests he remains one of the great batsmen of this, or any other, era. Stephen Brenkley on an underappreciated genius

All the fuss in Mohali over the next few days will surround a man who has been treated as a god for most of his adult life. Sachin Tendulkar, of India, needs a paltry 15 runs to become the highest overall scorer in Test history, an achievement entirely befitting his status in the eyes and minds of his countrymen.

But events in the second Test between India and Australia, starting tomorrow, may well be driven by a cricketer who far, from attaining deification, has regularly shown defects that are all too human. Ricky Ponting, the captain of Australia, will probably one day annex the runs record himself and take it beyond Tendulkar and anybody else for a generation.

The careers of both have been remarkable, batsmen not only for their own but for any era. As it stands at present, Tendulkar has scored 11,939 runs, tucked in just behind Brian Lara. Ponting's century in the first Test of this series for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy took him to 10,239, in sixth place.

At the age of 33 (34 in December) Ponting is 20 months younger than Tendulkar and so far his body, unlike that of the "Master Blaster from Mumbai", has shown few signs of rebelling against the constant demands put on it. Nobody ever can become the new Don Bradman – the man scored a century on every 2.75 visits to the Test crease, for goodness sake – but another Australian is building a sound case for being the Best Since Bradman. And as a captain Ponting is creating a record of similar magnitude. Under him, Australia have won 73.3 per cent of their matches, greater than anybody who has led in more than 10 matches: better than Bradman, and better than Ponting's immediate predecessor, Steve Waugh.

It is the ultimate stamp of a great batsman that he makes big runs on big occasions. Since Tendulkar is one of only five players to have made nine Test hundreds against Australia – one more would make him second behind the 12 scored by England's Jack Hobbs – it would be a stretch to accuse him of failing to make the most of himself. But there is a quality in Ponting, a mixture of talent, desire, will and doggedness, that sets him apart.

This has failed singularly to make him popular among the majority of Australians, who seem grudgingly to respect rather than admire him. Nor, despite his frequently articulated intentions, have the Australian team become conspicuously less swaggering. They might be quieter, slightly, but they still play it hard, pushing the regulations to the limit. Ponting has been complicit in this; indeed, has propelled it up to a point.

The spat between India and Australia this year during and after the Sydney Test did not reflect well on him. By word, he has seemed to resist a win-at-all-costs approach, but by deed during that match he all but signed a contract to adopt it. It was not so much that he reported Harbhajan Singh, his old bowling nemesis, for an alleged racial comment directed towards the Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds, but that he informed the umpires that a catch taken at slip by Michael Clarke was good when replays were to show otherwise.

Australia went on to win a contentious match with eight minutes left. Eight minutes in which Ponting might have lost the Australian public's backing. There were calls for him to be sacked. He rode out the storm and, though his form was distinctly patchy for a while he seems not only to have retrieved it but to have ensured that this team is as much his as ever.

Ponting's record in India had been woeful until last week. His hard-handed, front-foot style had contrived to make him a walking wicket: 189 runs in 15 Test innings, out 13 times to spin. Harbhajan snaffled him for the ninth time in Bangalore but by then Ponting had made 123.

Perhaps a player of his indubitable gifts was bound to make a hundred sooner or later somewhere in India, but it was characteristic that he should do it when he did. As the team left Australia, it was the burning issue. Only four of the party had played in India before and if Ponting did not make runs, ran the argument, they would probably be sunk.

It merely fuelled the captain's craving and if he needed any more incentive it arrived in the first over of the series when Matthew Hayden nicked one behind. Ponting was imperious thereafter and his 36th Test hundred should, and normally would, have established a platform from which Australia would take a lead in the series. In matches where he has scored a century, the team have won 27 times; India have won on only 13 of the 39 occasions when Tendulkar has made a hundred.

There is a steel in Ponting which is impossible not to notice. He may try to disguise it, but it is ever present. There have been times during interviews, especially the interminable round of press conferences that cricket captains have to perform, when it is not so much disguised as controlled. The strength of his ambition to do well can almost be felt across a crowded room but he seems anxious not to make too much of it.

This trait was at its plainest during England's last tour of Australia two years ago. Ponting had been chastened by the Ashes defeat away 14 months previously and although he never quite admitted as much, it became pretty clear pretty early that he had vengeance in mind. Not only that but he had been plotting it, nurturing it since 2005

When he scored 196 in the first Test at Brisbane it was as predictable as a bank collapse. Immediately, the Australian papers unveiled their Bradman comparisons and, bearing in mind this had been his 10th hundred in 30 innings, it was truly Bradmanesque. He made it 11 in 32 at Adelaide and when he was dropped on 35 English hearts could have sunk no lower had Bradman been reprieved. Throughout that winter the feeling was that Ponting would achieve redemption only if Australia could win 5-0. It drove him and he drove his team.

The captaincy has in its way been the making of him, not only because he averages above 60 leading the side. He and his law graduate wife Rianna had their first child, a daughter, Emily, earlier this year. Ricky is the highest-earning Australian sportsman, making, according to estimates A$4m (£1.6m) a year. He has acquired a Sydney mansion.

Thus he has left behind the rough diamond from Launceston, Tasmania whose passions were greyhounds, drinking and betting. From his early days he was "Punter" but at one point he might have been "Boozer" as well. The night in 1999 he received a black eye outside a Sydney night-spot marked a turning point. That would not happen now but there is a sense that taking the boy out of Launceston is not quite the same as taking Launceston out of the boy.

He had a modest season at home last year, though it was noticeable that after the Sydney rumpus he dusted himself down and hit back with a century in the last match of the series. The innings in Bangalore may allay for longer the whispers that the reflexes and the eyes are waning enough to make a difference.

Like Bradman, Ponting is not especially easy on the eye. He is neither languid nor elegant, neither graceful nor flamboyant. But when he is in he does not look like getting out. He hits the ball hard and often. That hundred last week may be another turning point. Whatever Tendulkar does in Mohali, it is now Ponting who is BSB – Best Since Bradman.

Measure of the man: How Ponting stacks up

Top 10 Test run-scoring batsmen


1. Brian Lara WI 1990-2006/131/232/11,953/400*/52.88/34/48

2. Sachin Tendulkar I 1989-present/151/246/11,939/248*/54.02/39/49

3. Allan Border AUS 1978-1994/156/265/11,174/205/50.56/27/63

4. Steve Waugh AUS 1985-2004/168/260/10,927/200/51.06/32/50

5. Rahul Dravid I 1996-present/126/218/10,302/270/53.65/25/53

6. Ricky Ponting AUS 1995-present/120/201/10,239/257/58.50/36/40

7. Sunil Gavaskar I 1971-1987/125/214/10,122/236*/51.12/34/45

8. Jacques Kallis SA 1995-present/123/209/9,761/189*/55.46/30/48

9. Graham Gooch ENG 1975-1995/118/215/8,900/333/42.58/20/46

10. Javed Miandad I 1976-1993/124/189/8,832/280*/52.57/23/43

Top 10 Test century-scoring batsmen


1. Sachin Tendulkar 1989-present/246/39

2. Ricky Ponting AUS 1995-present/201/36

3. Sunil Gavaskar I 1971-1987/214/34

4. Brian Lara WI 1990-2006/232/34

5. Steve Waugh AUS 1985-2004/260/32

6. Matthew Hayden AUS 1994-2008/169/30

7. Jacques Kallis SA 1995-present/209/30

8. Don Bradman AUS 1928-1948/80/29

9. Allan Border AUS 1978-1994/265/27

10. Garry Sobers WI 1954-1974/160/26

(WI=West Indies, I=India, AUS=Australia, SA=South Africa, ENG=England)

Other Ponting landmarks

* The only cricketer to have scored over 1,500 Test runs in a calendar year on two occasions. The first time was in 2003, averaging 100.2 in 18 innings, with a highest score of 257.

* Most Test runs in a calendar year by an Australian (1,544 in 2005).

* Most Test centuries in a calendar year by an Australian (7 in 2006).

* Joint most consecutive Test wins as captain, 16 (shared with Steve Waugh).

* Only Ricky Ponting and Sunil Gavaskar have scored a hundred in each innings of a Test match on three occasions.

* Most Test runs on Australian soil, passing Allan Border against India this year, including:

Highest run scorer at Sydney:


1. Ricky Ponting 13/22/1,282/75.41

2. Allan Border 17/29/1,177/56.04

3. Greg Chappell 12/22/1,150/63.88

Highest run scorer at Brisbane:

1. Ricky Ponting 12/19/1,120/74.66

2. Greg Chappell 7/11/1,006/111.77

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