Focus ... Ricky Ponting prepares to play a shot on day two of the third Test match against South Africa at the WACA Ground on Saturday. Photo: Getty Images
[Warning: the following contains material that may offend those who don't eat cricket statistics for breakfast, or those who think Test cricket only started in the 1990s.]
Among the many well-deserved plaudits Ricky Ponting has received at the end of his Test career is one that has been smuggled in uninvited. ''Unquestionably Australia's second-best batsman'', I read the other day. Oh yeah? Having been up all night with my abacus and shelf of blood-stained Wisdens, I have two questions. One is about my own mental health. The other is about the cult of recency that would have Daniel Craig the best James Bond, Fifty Shades of Grey the best book and Ponting the second-best Australian batsman.
One thing is unquestionable. Ponting belongs in the echelon of batting champions whose success has been the foundation of the Australian Test teams. Since 1877, each era has featured these out-and-out champions, starting with Billy Murdoch, the first man to make a Test double-century and the first Australian to score a Test century in England at a time when the English believed, with some justification, that although Australians were first-rate bowlers and fielders, they could not really bat.
The Golden Age had the twosome of Clem Hill and Victor Trumper; bracketing the war was the career of the ''Governor-General'', Charlie Macartney; then there was Don Bradman spanning two decades; in the post-war era was Neil Harvey, before the mantle was passed to Greg Chappell, then Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Ponting. Only the 1960s, which prospered under a committee of Bob Simpson, Bill Lawry, Ian Chappell and Doug Walters, lacked this singular batting master.
Ponting certainly belongs in this group, and beyond that all arguments are academic. Cricketers of one generation cannot be fairly compared with those of another. Conditions and bowling attacks are too dissimilar. But cricketers can be compared with their own time, and on this basis Ponting is not all that close to being second on the list. He has averaged 52.21 in a time dominated by batsmen.
This table uses a blunt statistical instrument, but makes a case that Greg Chappell, Border, Murdoch and Harvey, in that order, have the greater claim to be considered second-best. The batsman's Test average is compared with Australia's overall batting average in that era. This gives a fairer idea of how difficult it was to score runs. Harvey, for instance, averaged 48.41 in a tough time for batsmen, with England and the West Indies both boasting potent pace and spin attacks on generally helpful wickets. Australia's prevailing batting average was only 33.71 in Harvey's time, against which his average was 43.6 per cent higher. Ponting's is 31.9 per cent higher than his contemporaries'.
Murdoch was such an important batsman that when he walked out of Test cricket for six years in 1884, his absence sent Australia into their worst slump. His average of 32 may not sound prepossessing, but batting was diabolical on poorly prepared wickets left uncovered day and night, at a time in cricket's evolution when bowling techniques were far ahead of batting. How good was Murdoch? W.G. Grace, the greatest cricketer born, averaged 32.29 in Test cricket in the same era.
The only two Australian batsmen outside Bradman who have exceeded their contemporaries more than Murdoch are Border and Greg Chappell. Both played against the mighty West Indian pace attack of the 1970s-90s. Border played much of his career in teams that struggled. Does that detract from his record, because he is being compared to some sub-average contemporaries? I doubt it. Few batsmen would say batting gets easier when you're the only one in the team who can make runs. Border's record, 50.7 per cent better than the prevailing average, is magnificent but will always be underrated because of his team's lack of success, when the opposite should be the case.
Chappell also batted against the great West Indian bowlers, as well as some great English and Pakistani ones, initially without a helmet. His Test average, of 53.86, is quite amazing when you see that contemporaries of the quality of Ian Chappell, Walters, Ian Redpath, David Hookes and Kim Hughes averaged a long distance beneath him. Greg Chappell's record positively glows when World Series Cricket figures are added. Against the relentless assault of the best and fastest bowlers in cricket on sporting wickets - Australia only passed 400 twice in 30 innings in Supertests - Greg Chappell's average of 54.42 was twice that of his team. Only one Australian batsman has ever got near that kind of performance, and it ain't Ponting.
Bradman averaged 154.7 per cent more than his contemporaries. For what it's worth, Sachin Tendulkar's average is 49.1 per cent better than India's in his era, and Brian Lara's was a mighty 77.7 per cent in excess of the West Indians of his. These arguments don't prove anything, but they do raise questions about the unquestionable.