When Steve Waugh handed over the captaincy of the Australian cricket team to Ricky Ponting in 2004 he handed over a golden legacy and some magnificent players. But that legacy, and the decline and retirement of those players also meant Waugh was handing Punter a poisoned chalice too.
When Waugh’s team thrashed England in 2002/3 the captain was able to call on a host of excellent world class players including Justin Langer, Matty Hayden, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist, Gillespie even, Ponting himself and two of the best players ever to grace the game, Glenn McGrath and the brilliant Shane Warne. Just those last two would have been enough to elegant even a mundane outfit into a top class side.
But a glance down the side that Ponting brought to England in the epic 2005 series reveals that all of his best players were at the wrong end of their careers at the same time. All of those mentioned above except the skipper himself were in their middle 30′s, and even the bright young hope Brett Lee was pushing 30 and already injury prone.
Well, sometime this evening Punter will have achieved the unenviable task of losing three out of four ashes series and seeing his once invincible Aussies slip dramatically down the world ratings. The pugnacious little Tasmanian will inevitably be sacked, maybe as early as tomorrow, and he will be lambasted mercilessly by the Australian media.
For me though, Ponting has been a great leader, even if his captaincy has ocassionally fallen short. It is not his fault that he has to throw the ball to the likes of Mitchell Johnson instead of McGrath, and not only does he not have a Shane Warne but Brad Hogg, seemingly the only other Australian with the ability to spin a cricket ball has also retired. And even though he nearly combusted yesterday when KP was given not out, I always thought Punter was magnificent in defeat. Jaw thrust out, the sweaty baggy green cap pulled down over his steely eyes, ready to take on allcomers if they dared criticise his players but sportingly acknowledging his opponents, like a boxer who had fought the good fight with a fury, and congratulated his opponent at the final bell. Under tremendous pressure at Edgbaston in 2009 he was booed by a few spectators, sending the media into fits of apoplexy, although most of the crowd seemed to sense it was a bit of fun. But Punter stuck out that chin and strolled out defiant. A few moments later he became the highest Australian run scorer in test history and received an incredible standing ovation all around the ground, led by the English barmy army.
It would be good if his career could be judged by his magnificent batting and pugnacious, determined leadership, but sadly I fear the decline of Waugh’s golden generation will always hang around Pontin’s neck and a nation who don’t understand the meaning of defeat will be very unforgiving.