Column: Sport loses one of its toughest in Ponting

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By JOHN LEICESTER, Associated Press

The cricket ball that hit Ricky Ponting in the mouth surely regretted it. It probably wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. Because Ponting was tougher than leather.

The retirement from test cricket of Australia's former captain and most prolific run-scorer deprives sport, all sport, of one of its steeliest characters, a man not easy to like but impossible not to respect.

No angel, Ponting wasn't the sort of role model you'd want your kids to emulate. Not unless you want them to be argumentative, confrontational, competitive in the extreme and be photographed in their wilder youth sporting a black eye from a postmatch night of booze and brawling at the Bourbon and Beefsteak nightclub in Sydney's red-light district.

But if you want them to lead from the front, to man-up, knuckle down and quit whining, you'd point to Ponting.

"Ricky wouldn't cry about a little scratch like this," you'd say.

Or a big one.

Politely spitting into a hankie wasn't Ponting's style. He spit up great globs of blood onto the turf at The Oval in 2009 after Matt Prior put bat to ball and drove it hard into Ponting's face.

Typical Ponting, he was crowding the England batsman, crouching like a cat just 10 feet away, willing him to make a mistake, waiting for the catch.

Ponting doesn't do wussy protective helmets, at least not that morning. The ball smacked onto bone and split open flesh with an audible crack, straight into the side of his mouth.

Ponting went down. But then, remarkably, got straight back up again, acting as though what must have been major pain was only minor annoyance. Prior later recounted that when he asked Ponting if he was OK, the reply was uncompromising and unprintable.

Fortunately, the match then broke for lunch, giving the ball time to recover.

Photos of Ponting from that day say more about him than a thousand words. His lip is cut, but his gaze is unbending. He stares out from under his green baggy cap that is frayed at the edges, crumpled and worn — which is how Ponting started to look as his team lost that test for the second of three Ashes series defeats on his watch.

Ponting will be eulogized for his batting, so aggressive and fearless. His hook shot, rocking back on his feet, knees slightly bent, pivoting round and punishing short balls for four or six was so fluid and confident. Bang! Cue applause.

Sachin Tendulkar, the only man with more test runs than Ponting's 13,366, also can't be far from retirement, at age 39 and with 192 tests under his bat. Another Indian master batsman, Rahul Dravid, retired in March on 13,288, the third-highest total. South Africa's Jacques Kallis, fourth on the all-time test scoring list, is getting long in the tooth at age 37. So Ponting's retirement feels less like an isolated loss and more like curtains coming down on a galaxy of batting stars who pushed the art of intimidating, confronting and resisting bowlers to new heights.

As a batsman and Australia's captain at the 2011 World Cup, Ponting made headlines for standing his ground, for waiting to be given out by the umpire even though he himself knew he'd been caught. To some, that wasn't cricket. The old-school thinking is that a gentleman retires to the pavilion when he knows he's out, without needing to be told. But that is not the Ponting way. He was hard-nosed and unapologetic about it. Waiting for the umpire's verdict was within the rules of cricket, but offended its "spirit" — a nebulous concept of honor and tradition that Ponting ignored more than once in his relentless drive to win.

But when it came to walking from his 17-year test career, Ponting didn't need to be told. He wasn't prepared to watch his skills go slowly to seed with age. He turns 38 next month but looks older and a bit beat-up when he lets his stubble grow. He decided he was no longer playing well enough to satisfy his own exacting standards. What's more, he concluded he hadn't been satisfying them for a while.

So he said so — to himself, to Cricket Australia and to his captain, Michael Clarke, who was distraught. Straight-talking honesty was always one of Ponting's better traits, from his early days when he publicly acknowledged after his drunken night in 1999 that he had an alcohol problem and would treat it.

At a news conference, Ponting laid out his reasoning for retiring with no more emotion than an accountant assessing company books. His 168th test, against South Africa starting Friday in Perth, will be his last.

"If you look back over the last twelve or eighteen months, I haven't been able to perform consistently. I've had, you know, moments of really good stuff and I've had moments, prolonged moments, of cricket that's been below my expectations," he said. "It's just been a buildup of, in my own eyes, I guess, reasonably consistent failure."

Brutally blunt and sure of himself, it was pure Ponting.

Without wading too deep into national stereotypes, his rugged toughness sometimes seemed to epitomize Australia, or at least its passion for sport, an issue of vital national importance to many there, perhaps less weighty than death, but not by much, especially when playing the English.

For taking cricket so very, very seriously, but never making it look like it hurt, Ponting will be missed.

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John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester

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