Has Ponting Lost His Punch?

This post was originally published on All Out Cricket on 16th November 2011.

It’s time for Ricky Ponting to call time on an illustrious career, says All Out Cricket columnist David Green.

A common trait of great sportsmen is that they don’t always time their departures particularly well. This inevitably leads to tarnished reputations, sullied legacies and even ridicule.

This characteristic is perhaps most evident in boxing where the dimming of a champion’s powers can be easily exposed by a fresh and hungry challenger. I was reminded of this last week with the untimely death of Joe Frazier who, like his greatest foe Muhammad Ali, went on too long and attempted an ill-advised comeback (Shane Warne may wish to take note).

In some ways, there are many similarities between boxing and batting, with the participant required to take some painful hits in order to land some telling shots. It is hard to think of a batsman that resembles a pugilist more than Ricky Ponting, so it is perhaps fitting that like Frazier and Ali before him the best Australian batsman since Don Bradman is resisting the urge to bow out gracefully.

Those minded to scoff at the assertion that Ponting is Australia’s best post-war batsman may wish to consider a telling piece of analysis published on ESPNcricinfo, that asked which batsman is closest to Bradman in terms of being nearest to that mythical figure of 99.94 over the course of 52 consecutive Test matches. The study found that it was Ponting during his golden period of 2002-2006. In a 52-match period during those years, Ponting scored 5,813 runs at 74.52 with 23 centuries.

Some will no doubt point to the fact that Ponting was part of a truly dominant side during this period and never had to face the likes of Warne and McGrath in a Test match. But stats like this don’t lie. For Australia’s former skipper to have sustained that level of excellence over such a significant period of time and matches marks him out for greatness. Indeed, if he had retired at the end of the 2009 Ashes, there would be no doubt about his place in the pantheon of the greatest batsmen in history.

But Ponting has carried on, first with the added burden of captaining a team in freefall and latterly as the senior batsman in a side trying to rebuild after being humiliated on home soil by England. That he is in terminal decline appears to be beyond doubt. The evidence was there in his struggles against James Anderson, Chris Tremlett and the rest of England’s rampant attack last winter and in the sad spectacle that was the 36-year-old at the crease in the first Test against South Africa at Newlands.

Ponting has always been a slow starter, but in his prime he could have put bat on ball blindfolded to the two deliveries that dismissed him in Cape Town. Instead, he missed two straight balls and was out lbw in both innings. The stats back up this sad observation. Ponting has scored only one hundred in his last 23 Tests – a run stretching back to Cardiff in 2009. Even that one three-figure score in Hobart against Pakistan saw Mohammad Amir drop an absolute dolly when he had yet to register a run. His average in the 23 Tests since Cardiff is 33.78. That slips further to 26.50 in the 13 Tests since Hobart and to a dismal 18.84 since the start of last winter’s Ashes. Rome’s Empire didn’t decline this fast.

Ponting’s most ardent followers will doubtless continue to remind us that his form in the middle is just a trough and that he still looks several levels above his teammates in the nets. They will point to the examples of Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, two fellow batsmen of similar vintage who have both emerged from extended periods of poor form to enjoy resurgences in the twilight of their careers – witness Tendulkar’s Annus Mirabilis of 2010 and Dravid’s formidable form this year.

The old adage of form being temporary but class being permanent may yet hold true for Ponting, but to my eye this batting pugilist seems to have lost his punch forever. Australia’s new cricket supremo John Inverarity may have to begin his tenure with a momentous decision and call time on the career of a legend should Ponting fail again in the second Test at The Wanderers.

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