Retirement, for elite athletes, is about knowing when to call time; where to do it is seldom a consideration, but occasionally things work out just right. Ricky Ponting’s career will have come a full circle when he walks on to the WACA ground for his final Test. Not only did he debut in Perth — making 96 against Sri Lanka in 1995 — but he also announced himself as the era’s most destructive player of pace at this venue in 1999. He was under severe pressure — an average of 38.62 from 30 Tests and a pair of ‘ducks’ in the most recent of those has that effect — when he took on Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar. But in distress, champions find reserves of skill and strength even they didn’t suspect existed, and Ponting made a match-winning, career-turning 197. Over the next decade, he set about establishing himself as one of the greatest ever, a ruthless, aggressive batsman who dictated the tone of Test matches and series early. In his pomp there was no better player of the pull and the hook, strokes that emasculated the fast-bowler and drew the ball to drive, which Ponting promptly put away with brutal splendour. Only in India did his hard-charging methods come to grief. Although he improved, even managing a century in 2008, he ended with an average of just 26.48 from 14 games, the only blip in an otherwise excellent, wholesome record. Indeed a large part of India’s success against Australia at home owed itself to containing the man who often set his team’s agenda.
Ponting’s legacy is unique in Australian cricket history. He continued the tradition of driven, attack-minded cricket as batsman and captain, and won a lot. But he also broke tradition by staying in the team after captaincy and he lost a lot more than Australians are accustomed to. In a sense, he presided over a decline from a Golden Age. While he was a part of more than 100 Test victories — a staggering record — and three World Cup triumphs, including two as captain, he was also the only Australian leader to lose three Ashes series. Had Australia been in a stronger position, Ponting would have left Test cricket earlier — or been pushed out. Australia rarely lets former captains dwell; the management’s first action is to strip away the past. But Australia needed Ponting; Michael Clarke wanted him. He could still summon his powers, just not as frequently or for as long. But though the runs dried up, the person flowered: Ponting took to the role of senior statesman with surprising élan — the generous opponent who urged Rahul Dravid not to give up, the kind mentor young Australians looked up to. It was no surprise his team was in tears when he announced his retirement. He remained a rock-star to the end, just without the rebellious angst of his youth.