A fleeting echo … then he was gone
Seventeen years ago, he followed Michael Slater on to the WACA Ground. One hundred and sixty-eight Test matches later, he followed a security guard. But for all that has changed, Ponting remains Ponting. Perhaps that is the strangest thing about his retirement: for an old man, he still looks like the boy wonder.
Collar up, he burst out of the gate like a keyed-up greyhound. At moments like this, the spectator treasures the signature mannerisms. He performed his two brisk forward pushes, his fast running-on-the-spot. His routine was broken by the honour guard formed by the South Africans and Ed Cowan. As he deals with most off-field commitments, Ponting accepted Graeme Smith's handshake and Cowan's bum-pat while also sloughing them off.
Shane Watson had been out to the last ball of Morne Morkel's previous over, so Ponting had a few minutes to soak up the warm sunshine, the bright Perth light. He watched Cowan hoist Robin Peterson's next ball over the mid-wicket boundary. Forty-five minutes to lunch, a good day for batting, and a match situation - 2-87 chasing 632 - that offered ample motivation without the pressure of expectation. Since Bradman, anything more than a second-ball duck has been a bonus.
Goodbye … Ricky Ponting farewells the WACA Ground after his dismissal. His short innings featured one final pull for four - the shot Ponting made his own during his imperious heyday. Photo: AP
Cowan took a sharp single to get Ponting on strike. Alviro Petersen's fumble at mid-on staved off the awful but momentarily real possibility of the diamond duck.
Now came the Ponting routines, muscle memory taking over where the mind was addled. He kicked away the gravel behind the crease, scratched his guard. His right hand rested his raised bat against his shoulder, looking as ever like a soldier with his rifle, while his left hand fiddled with his protector and pad flap. He fixed his hands in two vees along his bright green grip and went into his stance. More signatures: two bat-taps to get set, another tap as the bowler loaded up, back straightening to bring his eyes to a spirit-level horizontal.
Peterson is no Eric Hollies, yet anything was conceivable. The crowd applauded the three balls Ponting survived from the tweaker, shaking out their own nerves. Next over, he had to get through one Morkel riser. Smith replaced the spinner with Vernon Philander, a bigger ask. Ponting was gardening, stretching, limbering up, all in the familiar tics but with a caffeinated quickness. Sixteen minutes in, he pivoted back to Morkel and delivered a gift: the pull shot. As with everything these days, it looked pure but didn't quite have the Ponting timing. The ball seemed to tire as it rolled to the rope.
Ricky Ponting's farewell Test innings
Ricky Ponting comes out to bat. Photo: Robert Cianflone
Morkel responded with a fast bouncer, then a snorter that hit Ponting in the hip. A get-off-strike voice told him to run, fatally, but Cowan sent him back. For the next 10 minutes some distractions arrived to carry him towards lunch. The umpires consulted him on changing the ball, Cowan had a drink, the game paused. Spidercam hovered like the Grim Reaper. On the giant screen were Ponting's career figures, a mass of fine print like a legal contract.
He was now beginning to settle. From the stands, you could almost see his heartbeat stop puffing his shirt. Smith brought on Dale Steyn from the Lillee-Marsh Stand end, and the South Africans turned up the chatter.
Steyn's first ball spat at Ponting, but he pulled his bat away. Then he leaned into an on-drive, another gift from the past - again, almost but not quite the Ponting straight drive. Charitably, Morkel at mid-on turned it from a dot-ball into a four.
Trademark ... Australia's Ricky Ponting. Photo: Getty Images
Plucking at his left hip - sticky shirt, or was he stinging where he'd been struck? - Ponting dealt with Steyn's off-stump interrogation. Steyn directed Hashim Amla from short mid-wicket to deep, then bowled three full outswingers.
Ponting was through - just one over from the innocuous left-armer Peterson, and he could reboot after lunch. He hadn't faced one ball in Philander's three overs.
Cowan, cutting Peterson for four, was starting to look like Arthur Morris during Bradman's last innings - ''I was at the other end, scoring 196.'' But Ponting might not have been as attentive to the finer details as he used to be. Peterson twice made it jump and hit Cowan's bat on the splice. Cowan managed to turn the third ball just clear of Amla's hands at short leg for a single.
Peterson's next ball, the fourth of the over, jumped again. It had been 40 minutes since Ponting had faced a ball from the Prindiville Stand end. He rocked back and, late and low on the cut, steered it to Jacques Kallis. More symbolism: one of Ponting's greatest sledges had been to this contemporary in 2002: ''Always a hard luck story, eh Jacques?'' Not this time.
Now you knew how it must have sounded when Bradman was out at the Oval in 1948. It sounded like nothing. Only when the South African players rushed up to shake Ponting's hand did the cheering start. He raised his arms, for once putting aside the annoying moment to acknowledge the magnificent history.
Then he was gone, watched by old friends and foes. Allan Donald shook his hand. Slater was metres away in his Cricket Show shirt.
The applause for Michael Clarke's entrance was a sad, subdued sigh. Two balls to lunch, and, letting off his own steam, he charged both. Each cracking boundary triggered an enormous roar - reserved for Ponting, but finding their outlet for the successor.
Here were two versions of eight runs. Ponting's had taken 43 minutes.
One pull shot, one on-drive, and an echo. Clarke's came in two balls. The game moved on.