An appreciation of the way in which Ricky Ponting timed his decision to retire, in marked contrast with Sachin Tendulkar, who, at this time, was playing on and on, despite everyone knowing that his best days were behind him and were very unlikely to return.
In sport, timing is everything.
Timing the shot. Timing the pass. Timing the punch. Timing the jump. Timing the attack (do you go before or after the bell?)
Timing the retirement.
Like any great batsman, Ricky Ponting could time the ball. Not, perhaps with quite the lustrous subtlety of David Gower, or Larry Gomes, or Mohammad Azharuddin; the last word in footwork and the psychological domination of the legendary batsman were more his thing. But if someone, anyone, dared to drop the ball short, he would swivel and pull them through midwicket with the finality, and the sound, of a gunshot. If the ball was slightly overpitched – or, with Ponting’s stride, not even that – it would be driven straight.
For some reason, in my mind’s eye it is Headingley, it is a Friday in July 1997 and Ricky Ponting is making his first century in Test cricket. The straight-driven ball accelerates smoothly up the hill and hurdles the rope. It is timing that has got it there.
Yes, Ponting can time the ball.
But for the greats, knowing when to go is always far more difficult than knowing how to time the ball. Growing up you were always the best. As an adult you were always the best (apart from the odd guy from another country and then it just came down to people’s opinions). Even as you got a bit older, and your hair started to thin and you lost too many games to your country’s oldest enemy when you were captain, you were still the best. As you dropped a place in the batting order, you were still, at least in your own mind, the best. You know what it is to fail once too often and to be forced to leave the stage – you’ve seen it happen to countless other players – but, somehow, until the last year or two, you’ve never quite understood that it would happen to you. And your confusion and uncertainty is exacerbated by the knowledge that you still have the privilege of being able to decide when to go. Lesser players don’t get the chance.
Eventually, though, you decide to go in the knowledge that people’s lasting memories will be of what you were rather than what you became.
And, before the adulation and the tears flow (as, in Australia, they surely will) you leave yourself one last shot to get it right the way you used to when it seemed like tomorrow would never come.
Different Shades of Green, 29th November 2012