Monday, 21 November 2011

The Ponting Dilemma

Cricket is rarely a fairytale. Just ask Gavin Hamilton (one test cap, where he bagged a pair and went wicketless), a succession of South African captains in World Cups and Keegan Meth. But every now and again, a moment comes along where everything just falls into place, and someone has the chance to do something mythical.

Ricky Ponting is one of the greatest players of our generation; indeed of any generation. Even in fifty years his name will be spoken about reverentially by those lucky enough to have seen him. The three successive World Cups. Being captain of perhaps the greatest team to have ever played. Over 26,000 international runs. An international career thus far spanning 16 years, representing his country during their greatest era of success. There is no doubting Ricky Ponting's pedigree, yet coming into this innings, the 267th of his test career, the calls were growing for it to be his last.

Without a century in 23 months, and more incredibly, without a fifty in 11 - Ricky Ponting's form has gone to pieces. No longer the undroppable captain, and averaging well under 20 since the start of 2010, Ricky's presence in the team is becoming increasingly untenable and the idea of him being dropped ever more likely. With every loss and batting collapse come further calls for a change to be made to a brittle Australian batting line-up, and Ponting, for so long the backbone that held it together, could be the fall guy for yet another series defeat.

Ricky Ponting doesn't deserve for it to end that way. For everything he's given Australian cricket - world cricket - our last memory of Ricky shouldn't be of a dishevelled shell of himself unable to cope with the South African bowling, stripped of the captaincy and shunted down the order from his number three spot. For all of his flaws, Ponting deserves a far more dignified end. Tomorrow he'll return to the crease alongside his new captain with 54 runs to his name, and 168 more runs to win. The potential for a Ponting hundred to clinch the game and save the series is so perfectly set up that it's almost been scripted.

But Ponting getting there would create more problems than it solves. In the fairytale, Prince Ricky would hit the match-winning hundred before announcing his retirement and riding off into the sunset upon his noble steed. We've seen it before - what better way to sign off than right at the top after playing an immense innings? And Ponting might well do that. But the trouble is, Ricky Ponting loves playing cricket for Australia. Why else would he be out there? It would have been easy for him to have bowed out when he handed the captaincy over earlier in the year, but his passion for playing ensured he was determined to keep going. As long as he feels he's good enough, he will keep going. And if he is good enough, even at the grand old age of 36 years and 337 days, to score hundreds against the best bowlers in the world, why wouldn't he keep going?

So what if he doesn't get there? The new Australian selectors, headed by John Inverarity, are yet to select a squad of players, let alone a team. With recent Australian failures very much on their minds, the new selectors will certainly want to start afresh, and what better way to signal the start of a new era than to get rid of the man who epitomises the old one? While Ponting has batted very well to get to 54 overnight, even getting to a far more significant score may not be enough to save him.

Ponting deserves the dignity of a memorable test farewell, not being dropped in ignominious circumstances. While it may not be Warne and McGrath bowing out amidst the tickertape of a 5-0 Ashes whitewash, guiding his team home with a century wouldn't be far off. The fairytale ending is set up for Ricky, but even if he got it, would he take it as an ending? The hundred and the win would be the perfect close to a fantastic career, but would the lure of future glories and a Dravidian renaissance (Dravid has 10 test centuries since turning 36) keep him in the Baggy Green? Either way, some big decisions will have be made, either from the Australian selectors or Ricky Ponting himself. The next 46 runs could be the biggest 46 runs in Ponting's career - if he gets there he will prove that the light hasn't gone out, and he is still good enough to score test runs. If not, he might not get the chance to decide. For once, I'll be cheering on Ponting and hoping that he gets there, because after everything he's given to cricket, he deserves to be the one that decides.

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