Cricket: A genius comes to Dublin
When Ricky Ponting was but a boy, his father promised him a glistening new cricket bat if he scored 20 runs. Graham never expected that he might have to fulfil the promise.
After all, Ricky was not yet 10 and playing against tough working-class adults from the suburb of Mowbray in Tasmania. It didn't faze him. Slowly, doggedly, craftily, he forged an innings of 20 and then some. He got his new bat.
He's been confounding expectations ever since. The 35-year-old sporting icon who will emerge in Castle Avenue this morning has been confronted with seemingly intractable problems all through his life -- on and off the field -- and he has answered them all in that singularly pernickety, defiant manner of his.
Bruised by a rough upbringing, then touted as a prodigy before bad form and worse behaviour tarnished a career seemingly before it reached the launching pad, Ponting has been forced to fend off a multitude of bouncers throughout his captivating near 20-year career.
The proverbial answer has always been an imperious response, with or without bat.
He emerged just as one of the greatest sporting dynasties ever witnessed assumed control of world cricket following the decline of the West Indies. And he has remained steadfastly on as great names -- Hayden, Warne, the Waugh brothers, McGrath and more -- departed.
Only the gifted Sachin Tendulkar has scored more centuries in either Test match or one-day cricket; he is undefeated as captain of two World Cup-winning sides, he has won the most Tests (42) as Australian captain.
His test average nears 60; more fundamentally, it has soared beyond 60 during his current six-year captaincy stint. Typical of the man, he marked his 100th Test (against the formidable South Africans) by notching a ton in each innings.
And still his reign is racked by questioning, his leadership undermined by persistent criticism as he kicks off a tour featuring arguably Australia's most callow collective in a generation.
His role as predominantly No 3 in the order mirrors the often vacillating trajectory of his career -- either he has to get on the front foot and clean up a stinking mess or he can stick his chest out and build upon the solid foundations of others.
The stinking messes have invariably been of his own making. His burgeoning Test career -- he debuted with a serene 96 against Sri Lanka -- almost ended before it began. Inheriting David Boon's role as first man in after the opening pair, he flopped against the twin towers of the Caribbean -- Courtney Walsh and Curtley Ambrose.
He returned to torment England in 1997, but then slipped again, most notably in India where the tyro nicknamed 'Punter' let off too much steam in a nightclub before being kicked out.
"I am usually the last to leave a nightclub," he later wrote, after allegations of misbehaviour against certain women were dismissed, even if he couldn't remember the drunken evening.
Dropped four times before his 24th birthday, Ponting was all too closely living up to the image of a wild, untamed outcast, seeking to inoculate against opprobrium by dint of sublime talent.
A nocturnal shimmy to a Sydney nightspot -- the Bourbon & Beefsteak Bar -- proved to be his off-field nadir, Carletta, a well-known drag queen, seemingly his last dance as a professional cricketer.
As soon as you could say Oprah, the black-and-teary-eyed Ponting was wheeled before the media to offer his apologies and most felt he would never don the famous baggy green.
Love changed him, for sure, thanks to a law graduate wife who claimed to know nothing about cricket. "My inspiration, my love," he called Rianna. More fundamentally, Ponting managed to limit his belligerence off the crease without minimising his aggression on it.
The first decade of the millennium has belonged to Ponting and his all-conquering outfit. Instead of courting controversy on the front pages, Ponting supplanted his now unblemished off-field life with a series of controversies on it, from arguments with umpires to confrontations with opponents.
His critics still carp, despite the evidence of the numbers lodged in his favour. The harshest foes are those who view his achievements through the prism of England and successive Ashes losses on 'Pommie' turf, albeit ignoring the resounding successes against the old enemy on Australian soil.
But England currently hold the upper hand as they hold the Ashes and the World Twenty20 title. Many assumed that the standing ovation accorded him last year when England won the game's coveted prize was valedictory in nature; however, one wouldn't bet on Ponting returning to England in three years' time.
Such is his competitive nature, you sense that coursing through his veins is the ambition to deliver Australia to that win on English soil as a glorious swansong. And it is within this context, aside from the pleasure of witnessing a unique sporting confection of warrior spirit and aesthetic ability, that Ponting's arrival in Ireland this week is framed.
Today marks the beginning of a tilt at undermining the English reformation; the impending five-match one-day series a chance for Australia to indicate whether they can establish another dynasty, not merely reflect flickering images from an old one.
"Every game that you play when there's an Ashes series on the horizon has that extra bit of meaning," Ponting says ahead of this morning's task against an Ireland side against whom he will not spare any effort in seeking the most ruthless of victories possible.
That has always been the Ponting way. He returns to action after nearly nine weeks off after a 2009/10 season that "was probably the most inconsistent year I've had, to tell you the truth."
A flawed character? Perhaps. An imperfect captain? Arguably. But a genius at the crease? Indubitably.