x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Ricky Ponting's date with destiny

The Ashes start next week, and, at 35, Australia's captain is ready for a series that will define his place in history.

Ricky Ponting bats against England in last year’s Ashes.
Ricky Ponting bats against England in last year’s Ashes.

Ricky Ponting does not "do" statistics. While some of his former colleagues in the all-conquering Australia side of the recent past loved to keep track of their own facts and figures - Glenn McGrath can remember every one of his wickets in international cricket - Ponting has always been blissfully unaware of approaching landmarks, his batting average or how many hundreds he has at the highest level.

His attitude is best summed up by something he said to me while we were working on a book together in 2004: "If I play for long enough and I keep doing well enough then I know landmarks will follow so there's no point in worrying about them ahead of time."

But there is one statistic of which he is all too aware as he has been reminded of it almost non-stop over the past year: if they lose the upcoming Ashes clash with England, he will become the first Australia captain to be on the wrong end of three series defeats against his country's oldest and fiercest rivals.

Defeat would be Australia's first at home against an England team for 24 years and, quite simply, it would make his position in charge of the Test team untenable. True, he has presided over an almost unprecedented changing of the guard with heavyweights like Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Shane Warne, McGrath and Adam Gilchrist all retiring. But just as Ponting does not do statistics, Australia do not do losing and if the unthinkable happens then change will be inevitable.

So, this series will be critical in shaping not only Ponting's immediate future but also the way he is viewed in the years to come. Forget his successive unbeaten ICC Cricket World Cup campaigns as captain in 2003 and 2007, the former including a brilliant individual hundred in the final in Johannesburg, and forget the fact that he is in charge of a team in transition. If he cannot regain the little urn in January, that will be what many people will remember him for.

Ponting knows it, and it is that knowledge that has driven him on over the past few months as he has prepared for his date with destiny. He has worked harder than ever before on his fitness under the guidance of Jock Campbell, the former Cricket Australia trainer, in a gym in the Sydney suburbs and even though he will celebrate his 36th birthday during this Ashes series, he is physically in the best shape of his career.

When I caught up with him last month at the International Cricket Council Awards ceremony in Bengaluru, India, he summed up the way he was thinking. "The hunger is still there, absolutely," he said. "I mean, I wouldn't have worked as hard as I have over the last eight weeks if it wasn't. I am as excited about the next period of cricket, with The Ashes and then the World Cup at the end of that.

"If it ever becomes a chore and I don't feel like getting up and training, or going to the gym, or doing the recovery session, then it is time to re-evaluate what I am doing. But at the moment, I am enjoying it as much as ever. I am enjoying leading the team. There are some fresher faces around the place, and obviously there are a lot of great challenges at the moment. But we all are enjoying it and we are getting some reasonable success."

That is the Ponting way. He leads by example, he trains hard, expects the players around him to do the same and cannot understand it when they do not. His motto could easily be "Fail to prepare and prepare to fail" and I remember his expression of bewilderment when he related a story to me about Brett Lee's no-ball problems during an Ashes Test in 2005.

The fast bowler was struggling to adjust to a slope up to the pitch on the first morning of the match at Trent Bridge, and after his umpteenth no-ball complained to Ponting. The captain's response was typical: "The slope has been there ever since we arrived in Nottingham three days ago so why didn't you come and work it out before now?"

That first Ashes loss was a chastening experience for Ponting, as it was for all his teammates and it was the motivating factor behind them bouncing back as they did 18 months later by smashing England 5-0 in Australia. But another loss in 2009, thanks to two costly batting collapses, at Lord's and The Oval, means Australia are once again playing catch-up, but this time without the likes of McGrath and Warne to fire the bullets.

So, is this series all about personal revenge for 2009? "For any game I play there is always something personal that I want to gain out of it," he told me. "I think there will probably be more personal issues for me if I actually got back to England again [in 2013] and had another crack over there. It is a different situation in Australia. We have had a lot of success here and the real empty feeling that I have had, the last couple of times I've walked out of The Oval, is probably not here.

"We all know how hard opposition teams find it coming to Australia, and particularly starting at The Gabba, they always find it a difficult place to win. So as an Australian, and an Australian captain, we are hoping for a very similar series to the last one [in 2006/07]."

The fact the series starts in Brisbane is ominous for England, at least when it comes to Ponting. No-one has more Test runs than his 1,196 at The Gabba and that includes hundreds in each of the last two Ashes Tests there, 123 in 2002 and 196 four years later. Both famously set the tone for two crushing series wins for the hosts so the message to England's bowlers is loud and clear: get Ponting early.

The difference between four years ago and now is that Ponting is starting to show the first signs of age catching up with him. His previous strength, as an outstanding player of the short ball, has become an area where fast bowlers are starting to find some joy. But while Ponting accepts he is no longer the man who scored seven Test hundreds in eight months (something he did in 2002 and 2003), he is in no mood to take a backward step or relinquish his hold on the crucial No 3 position.

I mentioned to him that his first Test match captain, Mark Taylor, was starting to question whether his powers were on the wane and his response was considered but also defiant. "It wasn't so much [Mark Taylor] saying that I'm past it," he said. "He just thought that it was going to be hard for me to get back to my absolute best again, and that's probably right. I think there is a period in every batsman's life where they are playing at their absolute best. Even Sachin [Tendulkar] now, even though he has scored nine hundreds last year, was probably not at his absolute best either. So [what Mark Taylor said] may be right, but by no means do I think I can't play at the level I want to play at. And if I can't play at the level I want to play at then I won't play the game anyway. So I have just got to be a good, consistent contributor in the No 3 role, and be the best captain and the leader I can be for the next few months."

Ponting has achieved almost everything possible in the game both individually and collectively - 39 Test hundreds and another 29 at one-day international (ODI) level, as well as three World Cup triumphs - but it would be wrong to assume his career has been one steady upward graph. Less than a year before that first World Cup win, in England in 1999, he was dropped from the Test side for poor form and then left out of the ODI line-up because of a-now-infamous drunken brawl in a Sydney bar. He admitted to having alcohol management issues.

The person who is credited with helping turn around his life and career is his wife, Rianna. Married in 2002 and now with a daughter Emmy, born two years ago, she has provided him with a life away from cricket.

Rianna, a law graduate, has given him some balance and perspective as she has never been a great fan or student of cricket, and that was something Ponting needed after throwing almost everything at the game from a very early age.

Rodney Marsh, now the head coach of the ICC Global Cricket Academy in Dubai, singled him out as the most talented youngster he had ever seen when Ponting came to work with him at the Australian Cricket Academy in the early 1990s. With praise like that ringing in his ears but also with a fierce work ethic drilled into him at the academy, he was picked for his first senior Australia tour, to the West Indies, in 1995 while only 18 and his dedication to the game and its demands on his attention meant there was time for little else. He did not even learn to drive until his late 20s because he could never find the time.

That is not to say he had no interests in life apart from cricket. He has always loved greyhounds, is an owner and it is the origin of his nickname "Punter", given to him by Shane Warne as the young Ponting spent his nights away from the academy at the track. The night before his first Ashes tour to England in 1997 was spent in the back of a van keeping one of his prize greyhounds company during a drive back from an evening meeting. He also loves playing golf, is a low handicapper and it is quite conceivable that had he dedicated himself to it instead of cricket he could have made a living at that instead.

However, Rianna has opened his eyes to a world away from cricket and helped him set up the Ricky Ponting Foundation, dedicated to raising money for children with cancer and their families. She has also made him more image-conscious than he was as a single man. The best example of that is the full head of hair Ponting now boasts compared with his thinning locks of a few years ago. Unlike Shane Warne or Graham Gooch, Ponting has never gone public over the fact he is no longer follically challenged but the evidence is there for all to see.

For the most part, though, Ponting has changed little over the past decade or so. He retains a dry sense of humour and a loyalty to friends, former and current teammates and family. In an era of player agents and big-money deals, he has stayed with the same bat manufacturer throughout his career and spent more than 15 years with his first agent. He has played just two months of county cricket throughout his career and his flirtation with the Indian Premier League was brief.

He knows that the key to his continuing success on and off the field is his performances as an Australian cricketer and that opportunities will always flow from that.

How long can he go on for? It is hard to say although he admits The Ashes and the World Cup next year will play a massive role in dictating that. As he told me: "We'll get through this next six or seven months, and hopefully the team has their fair share of success, and then we'll re-evaluate things from there." If he enjoys team and personal success in both series, starting next week in Brisbane, then he can go out on his own terms; if not, then it might not be his decision.

Brian Murgatroyd has known Ricky Ponting for more than 10 years. He was the Australian team's media manager for four years and has written three books with Ponting.

Five Ashes highs 

1997, Headingley Called in for his Ashes debut in the crucial fourth Test with the series level at 1-1, the 22-year-old Ponting came in to bat with his side struggling at 50 for four. His response was a maiden Test hundred, 127, to help Australia to an innings win. 

2001, Headingley Pushed up to bat at No 3 despite a horror tour of India, Ponting managed just 60 runs in his first five innings at first wicket down before an imperious 144 at Leeds established him in the role. He has been there ever since. 

2002, Brisbane Ponting made 123 on the opening day of the Ashes series at The Gabba, helping to set the tone for a 4-1 series triumph and part of a stellar run of form that saw him score seven Test hundreds in just eight months. 

2006, Brisbane In the first meeting between the teams since England's series win of 2005, Ponting responded by leading from the front with 196 and an unbeaten 60 as Australia won by 277 runs, the first victory of a 5-0 series triumph. 

2006, Adelaide His 142 in just under six hours at the crease sparked an epic Australia fightback which saw them win the Test despite conceding 551 to England in the first innings. And his second-innings 49 was crucial in the team's successful last-day run-chase.

Five Ashes lows

1998, Adelaide Scores of five and 10 in the Cathedral City gave him a total of just 47 runs from four innings at the start of the series against Alec Stewart's side. It was not good enough for the Australia selectors, who dropped him for the final two matches of the series. 

2001, 2005 & 2009, Lord's Ponting has scored just 109 runs in three Ashes Tests at the home of cricket, with a highest score of 42. Scores of 26 and 0 against Pakistan earlier this year mean that his name is not on the honours board of centurions in the away dressing room. 

2005, Trent Bridge Run out by England substitute fielder Gary Pratt after his side was forced to follow on, Ponting famously lost his temper as he walked off the field, shouting abuse at the England coach, Duncan Fletcher, who was watching with a smile on his face on the dressing room balcony.

2005, The Oval Became the first Australia captain in 18 years to lose a Test series to England as his side could only draw the last of the five matches to finish on the wrong end of a 2-1 series result. 

2009, The Oval In a re-run of four years earlier, Ponting again had to stand and watch as England lifted the urn. A draw would have been good enough for Australia to retain The Ashes but following a first-innings collapse they slid to a 197-run loss. 

* Brian Murgatroyd