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By Suresh Menon
Ricky Ponting turns 36 this month, and although he has said in his newspaper column that he has no plans to retire it might not be his decision to make. Losing one Ashes series may be an aberration, losing two sheer carelessness but losing three would be unforgiveable. If Ponting can’t see the end of the road yet, there will be others only too glad to point it out to him.
There is something fascinating about watching a dynasty come to an end; it’s rather like watching a documentary of a predator swallowing its prey. On reflection, there might be sadness and sympathy, but while it’s happening the action is riveting. The ICC rankings were introduced only in 2003, but had they existed since 1995 - the year Ricky Ponting made his debut - Australia would’ve been at the top all the time barring eight months.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Ponting has been in 98 Test-winning teams, more than any other player. He was never a great captain, but he led a great team, and hence the sadness as he presides over its decline and fall. A turnaround in the Ashes series with three Tests to go will mean redemption, however. All sins are forgiven if you beat England.
Ponting’s record as captain is the best in the game, with 47 wins. Perhaps that is working against him now. In India he just did not have the team to win, but was still only one delivery away from victory in Mohali. Had that result been different, the story of the series might have been different too.
Ponting said after the Bangalore Test that scores of 70s from him were just not good enough. “I should’ve made a double century,” he explained. Yet not even Sachin Tendulkar’s double century could put in the shade Ponting’s brilliant batting in both innings. He’s a contemporary great, and one of the greatest to have played the game, yet seems condemned to preside over a team in decline. Australia haven’t been as low as fifth in the ICC ranking. Ponting, who earned some undeserved credit as captain of a powerful team with Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath and Matthew Hayden conquering all before them, must cop the unfair blame when the current crop fails to deliver. That is the nature of captaincy.
Ponting was - not without reason - expected to be the link between generations, his own and the next. Today he is between generations, as the old order is changing and the new is found wanting. From being a coordinator in the days of the star players, he was expected to be a moulder of the younger players, a role he is uncomfortable with.
Now he is up against the oldest and most unfair rating in the game - when teams win, it is due to teamwork, team spirit and all those wonderful things, but when teams lose, it is the captain’s fault. Yet captains can raise a team’s play only so much. In the end, the cliché holds (that is why they are clichés): a captain is only as good as his team.
At various points in their careers, Ponting’s rivals as the best contemporary batsmen, Tendulkar and Brian Lara did experiment with captaincy. Both were found wanting. They didn’t lead enough to be in the captaincy debate, preferring to be judged on their batting alone. Ponting has no such luxury. He will be remembered as much for his batsmanship as for his captaincy, and will be judged not so much by his victories as by his defeats. This is the price top performers have to pay. They are measured by a different yardstick.