It pains me greatly and my fingers are twitching like Herbert Lom's eyebrows as I type this, but I have to profess some grudging admiration for Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting this week. This may just be a misdiagnosed case of pity resulting from the unusual sensation of seeing England beat Australia. However, his admission of tactical culpability and general refusal to blame the pitch, umpires or weather for his second Ashes series defeat raised Ponting a notch or two in my standings.
Ponting has always been an immensely unlikable opponent – arrogant, intimidating, overly competitive and of course, prodigiously talented. Anyone who has passed by this corner of the internet in the past weeks will know that the joy of seeing Ponting dismissed a few times was the most that I dared to dream for out of this Ashes campaign for a while. Memories of his face smug in victory over the past decade are still fresh, and as with all feared adversaries there is pleasure in seeing them lose.
'Punter' represents the last of the Invincibles-era; a time of unprecedented success and freakishly-talented individuals that is now well and truly over. In the history of test cricket Ponting, Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer are amongst the top twenty highest run scorers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath rank 2 and 5 respectively amongst test bowlers and Adam Gilchrist is the most successful Australian wicket keeper of all time. With such esteemed colleagues now long gone, Ponting has been left to oversee a wobbly handover to the next generation on his own.
Perhaps emboldened by the sight of a great opponent on the ropes, Ponting has been this summer’s pantomime villain for the English fans. There were boos and jeers from Cardiff to Leeds (and quite a few from our house). Almost in parallel the English press has maintained a series-long campaign in defence of the Australian captain. This might have emerged from an embarrassment that ‘the gentlemen’s game’ was being sullied by a yobbo element, but was mostly been built around the (admittedly true) notion that Punter is one of the all-time greats and deserves some sporting respect.
By mid-afternoon on Sunday, as he was trudging off the pitch having being run out by Andrew Flintoff, there was evidence of a noticeable thawing in hostilities towards Punter. The warm and generous ovation he received from the crowd surprised him as much as the jeering from the Cardiff stands had six weeks earlier. You could argue that all it took to see relations improve was for England to win for once. However I think that the sight of Ponting giving his all (including a brilliantly dramatic must-not-show-weakness stoic walk to the pavilion, spitting blood without so much as a flicker after receiving a cricket ball to the face) and producing another scarily good innings on a deteriorating pitch might have helped soften English fans' hearts. I even surprised myself.
Calls for his replacement seem sillier now than they did during the two series against India and it’s unlikely that he’ll be asked to go. The label of being only the second Aussie captain to lose the Ashes twice in England is an unfortunate irrelevancy – I mean, how many captains even get the chance to take a team to England twice? As for the future, well, statistics don't win matches but they don't look that bad for his young side. Australia scored more centuries, ran more runs and took more wickets than England. Ultimately it didn't change the result, but it just might offer some hope to a bruised and bloodied Ricky Ponting as he flies home tonight.
As for the unexpected rapprochement between me and Punter, well I'm sure normal service will be resumed soon enough. After all I have Pakistan and the West Indies to cheer on this summer and I'm sure he'll be back to his pugnacious old self. But for tonight Ricky, and only for tonight, Ricky - a tip of the hat to you.