Ricky Ponting as a teenager representing his local club Mowbray in 1992. Photo: Launceston Examiner
Ricky Ponting is a modern Australian. Following local custom, he emerged from the backblocks and made his way through the ranks and into the upper echelons. Now the boy from Mowbray bestrides the game. Although not regarded as a colossus, he stands top of the batting rankings and captains the World Cup holders and the strongest Test team on the planet. And he has done it without joining any of the rich gangs that played such a part in directing life down under.
Ponting's rise says something about his country and something about himself. To interview him 14 years ago was to encounter a self-possessed, capable youngster of independent disposition. Already the Australian cricket community was well aware of his existence.
Ponting's rise says something about his country and something about himself.
No one was worried that he came from the back of beyond. Apparently he could cut and pull and drive and use his feet. The wires were hot. Australia does not waste its cricketing talent. Already past players and coaches were talking about him, discussing the Tasmanian's prospects, hoping he'd take his chances.
Ricky Ponting celebrates reaching his century during the first day's play of the first Ashes Test against England in Brisbane in 2006. Photo: Reuters
To reread his early interview is to be struck by a determination to uplift himself and his backwater state. He was not to be constrained by place or background, did not accept that Tasmanians must lose, or play defensively, or ought to doff their caps. From the outset, he rejected defeatism, scorned caution.
From the start, too, Ponting was prepared to live by his wits. By and large, he has remained true to himself. In his youth, he occasionally fell into excess as fearlessness crossed the road and became hot-headness. Nowadays, he falters only when he suffers a loss of faith, often as a result of trying to absorb well-intentioned suggestions from distinguished colleagues. Mostly, he ploughs on, ears open, jaw set.
Nor did the supposedly narrow youngster from the harder suburbs of Launceston limit himself to cricket in that first conversation. To the contrary, he also talked about his trip to South Africa and observed that black people were not treated well, a point that had eluded several Australian prime ministers, the MCC, the BBC, the expatriate population in Perth and, at one stage, the entire English selection committee. Here was an early indication that Ponting was an altogether brighter spark than had been supposed.
Not that the youthful Ponting neglected the ways of the local lads. He has never been a fellow for airs and graces. Punting, grog and other popular pastimes were an attractive part of daily life in those formative years. Schoolwork, yoga, watercress, lime juice and prunes had rather less appeal. Hopefully, latter-day refinement has not totally closed the door upon raw entertainment.
Although his approach at the crease has mellowed, still he plays the same strokes. It's just that his shot selection has improved.
Somewhere along the way, he had the sense to realise that ambition without application is a doormat without a door. Others may remain in the wistfulness of eternal youth. Wanting to lead, he decided to grow. Bob Hawke followed the same path.
Nor was it merely a matter of polish. Ponting was rediscovering his original self. He had been thinking about these things and simply spoke his mind. Certainly his years from 16 to 26 were more harum-scarum even than convention decrees. Presently, he realised, as so many have done before him, that the time had come to settle down, whereupon his earliest self re-emerged.
In many ways, Ponting's path to the top has been well trodden: gifted youth, early brilliance, headstrong spell, reconsideration, renewal, responsibility. In one respect, though, he has been unusual. He has kept a distance between himself and his world. He does not belong to any particular party or advocate any particular cause, or appeal to any particular faction. Nor is he against any of them. He is independent.
So many Australians are desperate to be loved. Singo, Deano, Richo, the wretched list lengthens. Somehow, Ponting has remained a slight step back. He has made his own calculations. Perhaps the time has come to stop thinking of him as a young man to be advised and to accept him as a mighty sportsman and as a proven leader. Ricky Ponting may well score more runs than anyone else in Test cricket, and in challenging times he may captain his side with enduring success. Perhaps Ponting knows a thing or two. At 16, he knew that the Tasmanian side had to attack and that racism was wrong. No one told him these things. He worked it out for himself.