I sit here, at the end of a successful Ashes series, reflecting on the demise of Ricky Ponting. A man who has scored 12,000 Test runs finished the series injured, defeated and with an average a shade over 14. This is unquestionably the end of the era of Aussie dominance in Test cricket.
As an impressionable youngster I first experienced the Australians in the 1989 series in England. Their main bowler was Merv Hughes, a frightening-looking fellow with a thick, flowing moustache and a beer gut. Coming off a long run, with his belly jiggling around, he looked more dart player than cricketer. He would deliver a venomous short ball around the throat area, and finish about six inches from the frankly terrified batsman, all bulging eyes and boozy breath. The English succumbed quickly, which seemed sensible. I had heard that England had once won an Ashes but it seemed the stuff of myth.
When it was England’s time to bowl, a friendly bloke such as Derek Pringle would lollop in and send the ball at medium pace outside off-stump. The fellow at the other end was, again, a snarling, heavy-set man with Victorian moustache. This was Hughes’s soul mate, David Boon, who would respond by carving the ball through the covers for four.
England lost that six-match series 4-0. The only person who put up much resistance was our resident South African batsman, Robin Smith, a man who had a devil-may-care attitude to short-pitched bowling.
Call me a masochist; call me an inveterate idler. I was hooked on cricket. I didn’t mind that England lost. The Ashes was something in which comforting certainties, a natural order, existed.
They came back in 1993, with Shane Warne in their team, and won 4-1. David Boon bludgeoned runs, Hughes snarled his way through the England batting. In 1997, Boon and Hughes were gone, replaced by sadly clean-shaven men called Matty, Mark or Jason. It was hard to tell these identikit Aussies apart.
In 2001, I settled down to watch the series knowing that England had no chance. The new Aussie No 3 caught the eye. Small fellow, by the name of Ricky Ponting, full of bullheaded aggression, like a distilled David Boon.
In the first three Tests, he showed flourishes of brilliance, but it was in the fourth that the English public got its first proper sight of this arrogant genius. In the first innings he scored 144 off 154 balls. He did not so much bat, as slap the ball about. If you bowled short, he pulled for four. If you bowled full, he drove for four. And if you bowled wide, he cut for four.
England bowlers, by this point, had enjoyed a decade of uninterrupted failure against the Aussie. But it was only with the accession of Ponting to No 3, that Australia went from being superior to completely driving England into the dirt. Humiliating them. In frank terms, taking the piss.
In this belligerent short man, the English cricket fan heard a historical echo. Here was not simply another Aussie cricketer, over here to bolster his average and claim the Ashes. This was a short man on the rampage. Damn it, Ponting was another Napoleon.
The English were roused from their gentle slumber. They realised it was not good enough to simply turn up and lose 4-1. That was fine, before Ponting. Not now.
The England team had to try a bit harder. Central contracts were introduced. The lads went for the occasional jog. They laid off the booze and fags before matches. They did a bit of catching practice.
By 2005, England wanted to win. They knew the only way to do that was by targeting Ponting, now captain. As a cricketing Napoleon, England knew he had a short fuse. It was just a case of working out how best to help the chap ignite.
Firstly, like all successful English campaigns, some foreigners were brought in to help. We got an Aussie (Troy Cooley) to whip the bowlers into shape. Crucially, we brought in a South African (Pietersen) to bolster the middle order. Ponting wouldn’t like this. Oh no.
Then the winding-up started in earnest. The schoolboy tactics. The England team, full of big lads, were encouraged by our Wellington, Michael Vaughan, to taunt Napoleon. Matthew Hoggard, a bluff Yorkshireman, was deployed in press conferences to tell Ricky they had plans for him. During the match, the England fielders had mouthfuls of wine gums to help shine the ball and make it reverse swing. Vaughan started giving bowlers ‘toilet’ or ‘injury’ breaks during the day, so they could put their feet up and get a massage before their next spell, replacing them with crack fielders.
Ponting, nonchalant at first, safe in the knowledge that the Aussie would prevail, did not react. But through a tight series, the pressure grew. The Press started asking leading questions about whether he was happy with English tactics. The fuse was ready to explode.
And then, in the fourth Test, with England dominating, Damien Martyn pushed a ball into the covers for a quick single. The substitute fielder, Gary Pratt, picked the ball up and hurled down the stumps at the striker’s end with Ponting some way from his ground.
Ponting, whose temper had been contained until this point, exploded. He flew into a rage, waving his bat at the English dressing-room like a modern-day Yosemite Sam. Vaughan laughed, and England laughed with him. From there, with Pratt as 12th man for the final Test, and our South African plundering runs, the series was won.
The template of English success against Ponting was laid. In this present series we have merely refined it. We have another South African in Jonathan Trott to further solidify the middle order. We have an even better Aussie bowling coach in David Saker. And we made smart use of the referral system which caused Ponting to go apoplectic, again in the fourth Test.
It is unlikely Ponting will be seen against England in the next Ashes series. It is unlikely the Aussie batting order will quickly recover its former strength. Drawing the Napoleonic parallel again, I can’t help but think that putting the short man in charge caused great triumphs in the short-term. But while Australia, like France, enjoyed great success with a short-tempered short man as leader, it was in that very appointment that the seeds of their humiliation were sewn.