There is no sport in which sentimentality coexists with commercialism so closely, and at times so uneasily, as cricket. A Test match can play to near empty stands, and still have a large contingent of purists fretting over its continued existence; T20 is seen as its uncultured, uncouth offspring, the kid who threw away a university scholarship to go on the X Factor and is knee-deep in money, cheerleaders and rock and roll.
Success in sport means moving with the times. It is why Test cricket now uncomfortably straddles the line between traditionalism and an uncertain future, not knowing whether it wants to go forward or back, and why in building a successful cricket team pragmatism must take precedence when it comes to retiring the old guard and making way for new blood.
It is mission accomplished as far as England and Andy Flower are concerned: England sit at the top of the Test tree through the fortuitous butterfly effect of KP’s bust-up with Peter Moores, and a perfect synergy between Flower and captain Andrew Strauss. Both Australia and India are fighting their way through a period of transition, with both facing accusations of sentimentality for not putting their old warhorses out to pasture.
One warhorse who, in the view of many, should have had his passage booked to the knacker’s yard months ago is Ricky Ponting. The first suspicion of reverent sentimentality on the part of Cricket Australia came when he did not retire immediately after losing the captaincy, but was pushed down to number four in hopes he would rediscover his form. Two schools of thought can be ascribed to this: the first being that any possibility at all of a return to his imperious best was worth persevering for, and the second, and most likely, that no one wanted to be the one to swing the axe on a great career, and that if the failures persisted for long enough, Ponting would do the decent thing and retire himself.
You make a rod for your own back when you have achieved as much as Ricky Ponting has. Anything less than excellence means failure. The fact you scored your last hundred back in January 2010 – never mind that you have scored ten half-centuries since then – is failure. Your 78 against New Zealand at Brisbane this year still won’t be enough to silence the critics. The skill in being a success at parties is knowing when to leave. People are saying you are finished. You need to bow out gracefully, to make way.
Or, you could say screw all that, smile and nod and grit your teeth and keep your head down and do it the hard way, throwing yourself through the dirt in one of the most desperate singles you’ve ever taken, and, spitting out bits of the SCG wicket and with mud on your shirt, raise your bat to the pavilion in cricket’s version of the one-fingered salute to celebrate your 40th Test hundred.
This was more than just a fuck-you hundred to the critics calling for Ponting to be dropped. Comebacks like this are the culmination of the moment you realise that, when you get to this stage in your career, your biggest opponent is yourself. The engine of your talent is still what drives you; but the workings need a bit more TLC than they used to. Like a vintage Patek chronograph, the hallmark and craftsmanship remain unmistakable, but the timekeeping might no longer be as precise; the inner workings will need cleaning, dismantling and, in some cases, replacing.
Ponting, interviewed after a roll-back-the-years 134 – in which the swivel-pull made a triumphant return with all the fanfare of a conqueror marching into a city – acknowledged that he has had to return to basics: “There were a few technical aspects of my game which I have been doing and which have now paid dividends. It’s all starting to come back. There’s rhythm about my batting again.”
Presumably – hopefully – now that the mechanism has been given a good old winding in that Sydney innings, he can continue keeping good time now for another year, another eighteen months, even. He will wind down eventually, to the extent where nothing will restart him, but that day is not yet.
Today, all the talk was of captain Michael Clarke’s historic triple-century. Tomorrow, all the talk will be about Sachin Tendulkar’s success or failure in chasing down that still-elusive hundredth hundred.
That all of this should, to a certain extent, overshadow the achievement of Australia’s ex-captain is understandable.
But that new shirt Ponting changed into after raising his bat was probably more symbolic than the dive through the dirt: clean shirt, clean sheet, renewed confidence, clean start.
Thank god for sentimentality.