Proteas in Australia

Ponting hype a threat to SA?

2012-11-29 13:00
Ricky Ponting (Gallo)
Cape Town – His greatness assured, Ricky Ponting has done the right thing by stepping down from Test cricket after the decisive final Test between Australia and South Africa from Friday (04:30 SA time).

The dashing Baggy Greens right-hander turns 38 on December 19 and admitted candidly as he announced his decision on Thursday that for the last 12 to 18 months he “hasn’t been able to perform consistently”.

Several uncharacteristically mediocre Test matches in that period against a particularly staunch foe over the years, the Proteas, only further demonstrate his concern – or rather knowledge, perhaps -- that his rampant best years are behind him.

This Test at the WACA, fittingly a winner-takes-all affair between the big southern hemisphere sporting rivals, will be his 168th overall and 26th against South Africa.

Ponting has customarily been influential to the point of heartbreak in these parts when facing the Proteas -- something to be expected when you consider how often that personal dominance coincided with a golden era for Australian cricket and one in which our country overwhelmingly played second fiddle to them in series terms.

His batting average, as you might wager given South Africa’s pretty consistent ability to at least field frisky pace attacks, is slightly lower against the Proteas as things stand at 49.30 than his overall one of 52.21, though it is 51.43 in 14 contests on Aussie soil, and 46.85 from his 11 Tests in South Africa where the ball tends to swing and seam more to add to other challenges.

But it is still a glowing record, and would be stronger but for notably waning effectiveness in bilateral tussles over the past two summers, which very much include the period in which Ponting ruefully admits he has rather hit the skids.

Ponting, batting in a line-up far less formidable now than in the late 1990s and early 2000s heyday of Steve Waugh’s – and then his own – leadership, could only manage personal scores of 8,0, 0 and 62 in the short shared series in South Africa last season, and in the first two Tests of the current one Down Under has posted a duck in Brisbane and 4 and 16 in Adelaide.

Before that, however, he prospered against the Proteas roughly as much as he did against any other comers.

His first ever Test against South Africa (his own 13th cap in the five-day arena) quickly sent out a powerful signal of things to come: Ponting blasted 105 and 32 in the 1997/98 Boxing Day Test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, batting as the rookie at No 6 then.

Appropriately, given how their careers at the crease would be compared over many years, that was also the Test where a young Jacques Kallis earned his maiden ton for South Africa, a fighting 101 in the second innings as the tourists clung on for a draw.

Without question, Ponting’s most glorious personal summer against the Proteas came in 2005/06, when back-to-back, three-Test series were contested.

In Australia’s 2-0 success at home, he blitzed 71 and 53 at Perth, 117 and 11 at Melbourne, and a particularly influential 120 and 143 not out at Sydney, making him a runaway choice for man of the series.

In the last-named Test, Graeme Smith had commendably dangled a fourth-innings carrot in front of the host nation, as the Proteas were already 1-0 down in the series and desperate to draw level, and Ponting ended up making imperiously light work of the 287 requirement – the Aussies won by eight wickets.

When hostilities moved to our pitches, the Aussie captain was in no special mood to let up, striking 74 and one at Newlands, 103 and 116 at Kingsmead and 34 and 20 at the Wanderers as the visitors actually went one better by earning a 3-0 sweep.

Though slightly different players in approach, Ponting and Kallis will have seen enough of each other, both in series between them and in observation of neutral ones, for there to be mutual admiration in a variety of ways.

Kallis averages an inferior 42.12 to Ponting in South Africa-Australia series, but it has to be kept in mind that the pressure has almost always been much greater on the former not to give his wicket away, given that he was batting in more vulnerable teams the bulk of the time. There is also his additional, weighty duty as an all-rounder to consider, of course.

And Kallis has only widened the overall gap between the two in statistical terms, taking his Test batting average to 57.26 – now more than five runs better than Ponting’s.

 It suggests that he has weathered the ravages of time better: for instance, Kallis’s last 10 Test innings, including several big ones against the very Aussies of late, have produced 568 runs at an average of 63, whilst Ponting has mustered only 226 at 25.  

These two veterans (both 37, of course) get a final, close-up look at each other in a Test match at the WACA over the next few days, assuming that Kallis is passed suitably fit to play purely as a batsman.

Many neutral connoisseurs of the game would be happy to see both true luminaries prosper, whatever the outcome.

Australians, though, will be hoping the rightful emotion surrounding Ponting’s Perth swansong acts as a device in their favour.

Few would deny that it might.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

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