As Ricky Ponting retires, we learn there are many ways to say farewell
If any sports people have a more finely-tuned sense of their place in history than Australia’s cricketers, I’d love to meet them. Ricky Ponting called time on his career in Perth last week, declaring his innings closed on 168 Test appearances. Exactly the same number as that other Aussie middle-order warrior and captain, Steve Waugh. In drawing level with – but refusing to pass – Waugh’s record, Ponting echoed Mark Taylor’s declaration when he was on 334 not out, thus equalling Don Bradman’s then Australian record Test score and declining the opportunity to overtake the great man.
It’s a decision that some feel Ponting shouldn’t have been allowed to make. By his own admission, his form has been some way short of his best and Australian cricket isn’t renowned for its sentimentality. However, it’s fitting that this wonderful servant to his country should be granted the right to exit the stage on his own terms. His reaction to the spontaneous guard of honour formed by the South Africans as he walked in to bat for the final time was typical of the man.
“I was a little bit embarrassed and wish it didn’t happen that way, but it was an amazing gesture by Graeme [Smith] and the South African team,” Ponting said, before promising to buy Smith a beer by way of thanks.
Earlier in his career, Ponting was renowned for neither his humility nor his judicious use of alcohol. He was a fully paid-up member of the talented group of larrikins – Shane Warne and Mark Waugh being two others – who were the heartbeat of arguably the greatest Test side in history. They were good but, by God, they knew it. Winning with swagger, swigging with vigour and chirping at inferior opponents in the manner of playground bullies. Ponting’s love of a good bet on his beloved greyhounds – and his inevitable nickname, Punter – simply underscored the cricketing public’s view (alright, my view) of him as a brilliant but unlovable tearaway.
It was only in 2005 that my personal opinion of him changed. Being on the wrong end of the finest series ever to have been played (fact) must have been nigh-on impossible to take. Especially as it was at the hands of the Poms. But the way Ponting conducted himself, his honest appraisal of his own side’s shortcomings, and his genuine congratulations to Michael Vaughan’s men marked him out as a man of the highest calibre. When he retained his stoical and sanguine demeanour through two further Ashes losses as captain, often in the face of hostile recriminations from the Australian media, Ponting became my most respected sporting opponent. An accolade I’m sure he’ll be ‘stoked’ about.
So, as Ricky sails off over the horizon, who else has made a memorable exit?
Frankel – 20 October 2012
The life of a racehorse is often planned with military precision. So the sport’s followers knew this date would signal the end of the career of the most celebrated animal ever to grace the turf. And they flocked, all 32,000 of them, to a chilly and damp Ascot to catch one final glimpse of their hero.
He won again, superfluous to report. Ridiculous that we should take his victory for granted. Trailing in his wake was officially the second-best horse on the planet, Cirrus Des Aigles from France. The ground was far softer than Frankel would have wanted (and would’ve suited the French raider much better) but, still, Frankel breezed by his rival in trademark effortless fashion to win by a comfortable length-and-three-quarters.
After the race, jockey Tom Queally took Frankel on an impromptu parade in front of the stands. Queally, who was in the saddle for every one of the unbeaten colt’s fourteen career victories, admitted he deliberately rode further than necessary, “so I could sit on him just a little longer.” It was a fitting tribute to a mighty equine hero. We may see Frankel’s like again, such is the idiosyncratic nature of sport, but it’s unlikely.
Meanwhile, I fear for Ascot’s Champions’ Day in 2013. Without Frankel topping the bill, how can it hope to attract such numbers in the middle of autumn?
Ayrton Senna – 1 May 1994
Unlike Frankel’s, Ayrton Senna’s exit came as a monumental and tragic shock. And yet, in some ways, the Brazilian had been saying goodbye for quite some time. Students of Senna, and particularly those with an interest in conspiracy theories, will be able to point to a number of seemingly prophetic quotes about his own demise.
“If I ever happen to have an accident that eventually costs my life,” he said, “I hope it happens in one instant.” Mercifully for him, his death at Imola, San Marino, was just as instantaneous as he’d half-predicted.
One of the great paradoxes of the man was this: on the one hand, a sensational, sublimely talented driver whose style and approach bordered on the reckless; on the other, a shop steward of a figure, at the forefront of lobbying F1’s authorities for greater driver safety. One of the many fantastic scenes in the should-have-won-an-Oscar documentary of his life shows Senna in heated debate with race officials. He’s basically saying: “This is a dangerous sport, you know. Someone could get killed.”
After Roland Ratzenberger had lost his own life in qualifying for San Marino, Senna phoned his girlfriend. He reportedly told her he didn’t want to race but felt obliged to do so because it was his job. Through the lens of history, this call has a certain valedictory quality about it.
As with many who die young, Senna’s status as a legend was cemented the moment he perished. And just a small part of his legacy is a safer Formula One.
Alex Higgins – 14 April 1990
Ronnie O’Sullivan’s always threatening to retire from professional snooker. In fact, he’s currently taking a year-long sabbatical, from which he may or may not return. One word, Ronnie. Boooring. Retire, don’t retire, go for a run, do whatever, just piss or get off the pot.
If Ronnie, or anyone else, wants a lesson in how to do it, look no further than the granddaddy of all snooker lunatics, Mr Alexander Gordon Higgins. After losing to Steve James in the 1990 World Championship, Higgins sat in his chair for an eternity, a pathetic figure in the middle of The Crucible, sipping what appeared to be orange juice (but was almost certainly half vodka). Having had time to collect his thoughts, he delivered one of the most extraordinary, rambling diatribes ever heard at a press conference. Among the stream-of-consciousness that included accusations of corruption, calls on politicians to investigate the game and an inexplicable “Rock on, Tommy”, Higgins announced his retirement.
“You can shove your snooker up your jacksy,” he slurred. “I’m not playing no more.”
Yes, it was a sad sight, the very epitome of the tortured genius imploding in an unforgiving media glare. And I know we shouldn’t delight in the public humiliation of a man battling health problems and psychological demons. But, on the other hand, what entertainment! Way to go, Alex.
Now that, Ronnie, is what I call a farewell.Tagged in: Cricket, Ricky Ponting
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