The timing, and the delivery, caught everyone by surprise — none more than Michael Clarke, Ponting’s successor as Australia captain, long-time understudy, and also a member of the panel of selectors.
Ponting, who will turn 38 next month and equal Steve Waugh’s Australian record with his 168th test cap starting Friday in Perth, managed to compose himself and present a resolute image to a domestic media contingent that has speculated for more than a year about when the former skipper should or would call an end to his international career.
“A few hours ago I let the boys know of my decision to make this test my last,” Ponting started. He continued, “I tried to say a lot but I didn’t get much out.
“They’d never seen me emotional before, but I was this morning.”
Ponting’s wife, Rianna, and their two daughters were in the news conference room, along with all of his Australian teammates, coach Mickey Arthur and chief selector John Inverarity in a unanimous show of support.
Clarke couldn’t hold back the tears when it was his turn to speak in front of the cameras after Ponting had made his news public.
“The boys are obviously hurting at the moment. He’s been an amazing player for a long time,” Clarke said, before drawing a few deep breaths, taking time as he contemplated a question posed about the atmosphere in the room when Ponting broke the news to his teammates. “And that’ll do me for today. Sorry, I can’t answer that.”
Clarke had only half-jokingly told a news conference after the drawn second test in Adelaide on Monday that he hoped Ponting would rebound from his lean patch with a triple century in Perth against the top-ranked South Africans. He has said repeatedly that Ponting would know when the time was right to retire, echoing the statements from his former captain.
“No, I didn’t have the feeling it was coming,” Clarke said. “Ricky spoke to me after the Adelaide test match, and made his decision over the last little while.”
Ponting made his test debut at the WACA ground in Perth against Sri Lanka in 1995, as a young batsman with plenty of ability and a lot of swagger just 10 months after playing his first limited-overs international for Australia. Since then, he has amassed 13,336 runs in the test arena, a record for an Australian batsman and second only to the great Sachin Tendulkar in the cricket world.
On top of that, he guided Australia to back-to-back World Cup titles in 2003 and ’07 in the limited-overs format after taking over the captaincy from Waugh. He stood down as Australia captain after an Ashes series loss on home soil followed by a quarterfinal exit in the 2011 World Cup in India.
It didn’t take long for selectors to drop him from the ODI team, with a run of low scores bringing about his demise in February. He vowed to bat on in test cricket, promising to continue scoring runs and leaving it up to the selectors to keep picking him — or not.
He came into the three-test series against South Africa with plenty of runs on the board in domestic first-class cricket, but only put together 20 runs in three innings of the two drawn tests in Brisbane and Adelaide. In the second test, he was bowled in both innings and never looked comfortable at the crease.
Ponting said during the Adelaide match that a discussion with selectors would obviously come sooner rather than later and, asked if he still was targeting the 2013 Ashes tour to England, suggested that he might not even make it through this summer if he didn’t start scoring runs.
“I know I have given cricket my all, it’s been my life for 20 years. There’s not much more I could give,” he said. Australia needs to win the series against South Africa to have any chance of supplanting them at the top of the test rankings, and that is Ponting’s main career goal right now.
“This week I’ve got a big job ahead, I’ve got to lift my level of play from what it was last week,” he said. “Over the last couple of weeks my level of performance hasn’t been good enough. My passion and love for the game hasn’t changed.”
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland was full of praise for Ponting.
“Ricky has had an extra-ordinary career and has made an extra-ordinary contribution, including through the example he has set for other elite players and through the excitement he has given fans, young and old,” Sutherland said. “I think his record until he retired as captain was outstanding, but my respect for him since then has actually increased, seeing first-hand how he stepped back to become a total team player, absolutely committed to his captain, unstinting in his work to help other players and single-minded in his view that everything, including his own ambition, must always be second place after whatever was best for the team”.
Ponting plans to continue playing for Tasmania state in the Sheffield Shield competition and will play for the Prime Minister’s XI against Sri Lanka later in the summer. He decided he just didn’t quite have the form for test cricket.
Ever the pragmatist, he said the decision “was based on my results.”
“In this series so far they have not been up to the level required of batsmen and players in the Australian team,” he said. “I’m glad to have got the opportunity to finish on my terms.”
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