Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Cricket, The Great Leveller

Hashim Amla - player of the match
South Africa head back home with their ICC status intact after a thumping victory at Perth. Had it not been for a run a ball 68 from Mitchell Starc batting at ten, it might have been an almighty thumping.

The game was even until Saturday afternoon, when Graeme Smith and Hamish Amla applied one day batting techniques to put the Australian second string bowlers under pressure. They wilted under the attack, 200 was put on in the final session and the game was over. The rest was just adjusting the stats.

The problems with how this series was conducted have been canvassed clearly enough (see Men of la Mancha) with most of it in the visitors favour. Much of Australia's game was first rate, even the bowling given the shirt front wickets that were prepared. The only hole in the batting lineup (Ponting 32 @ 6) has been self-repaired but there are still problems with a bowling attack that gets injured so easily and for such long periods. In the end, South Africa's batting was too deep and too good and even if the skeletons of Warne and McGrath had been drawn from the closet, Austtralia would have done no better (All The Questions Have Been Asked)

The over indulgence in the Ricky Ponting retirement during the Perth Test probably didn't cost Australia the match but it certainly didn't help. The players minds were not totally on the job in game and it showed. The cricket gods showed their hand and perhaps the current crop might remember now that the game is bigger than any of its players, even one as highly credentialed as Ponting. For all of the hoopla and appreciation of his contributions to Australian cricket - only some of which are accurate and not laced with hyperbole - it didn't raise his game and it didn't help his team mates.

The most powerful moment of the series
Of all the gnashing of teeth, raw hands bleeding applause, praise by former team mates now safe in the air conditioning between the add breaks once the umpire calls play and the endless memorabilia - "only fifty left, get in quick for a piece of Ricky's shirt" - there was one poignant moment which not only paid Ponting an appropriate homage but did so within the constructs of history and in keeping with Ponting's staggering achievements with the bat. As he came out that last time and men cried in the outer even before their third plastic cup of light beer, Graeme Smith arranged his men in two converging lines leading Ponting to the batting crease and then applauded him through. Ponting paused for Smith to shake his gloved hand and pat him on the shoulder. A similar guard of honour was formed at The Oval in August of 1948 when Bradman came out to play his last dig.

I did care much for him either.

That Smith would do such a thing for a man he had described "flinty and hard and the toughest man I played cricket against" was the highest honour expressed over the four days in Perth and it was completely appropriate that Ponting's highest accolade should happen right in his workplace. When Ponting left, Smith and his senior men ran to catch up with him and shake his hand, slap his back and send him off with their appreciation of his gifts and contributions.

Cricket the leveller. The game knows Ponting would have done no such thing if he had been in Smith's position but it happened anyway, reminding us all that the genuine good of the game isn't in statistics and blinding ability. It lies in relationships. It lies in the quality of the struggle, not the ferocity. It lies in humility, whether in victory or defeat. Just like life, its the journey that is the point, not the destination.

Left at the top of their game
Ponting won't be missed like some of his former team mates who were also greats of the game. They left at the top of their game, before their powers dwindled. Ponting was been waning for three years, with only runs against a poor Indian attack last season as a summer break from what was a long bleak extended winter of ordinary batting and matching scores. He hasn't been the man Australia talked of during this last week for a long time. Some say its good he left at a time of his own choice but the truth, in public relations terms, is a fiction. Its much easier to know there are no pasts to be gathered from the future when you are told so by the man with the key to the clock. Ponting should have left when Andrew Strauss went home with the Ashes. He should have left after his century in a losing quarter-final of the World Cup. He should have left last March when he was dropped from the ODI team.

He left in Perth, scoring 4 and 8, his regular off stump woes of the last three years dogging him again.

In ten days, none of this will matter.

Australia starts a three Test series against Sri Lanka in Hobart on December 14th.