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Great sporting careers, as difficult as it is to fit them into a small mould of description, are often capable of being identified by a singular trait of those who lived them. From Muhammad Ali’s shuffle to David Beckham’s free kick and Roger Federer’s one-handed inside-out sliced backhand to Sachin Tendulkar’s straight drive – these shots or moves are known as one with the men who mastered them.
Similarly, if one was to dwell into the glorious batting career of Ricky Thomas Ponting, the pull shot would take precedence over the other strokes he played, perhaps, equally deftly.
How did he achieve such mastery in countering the fast bowler’s most lethal weapon on the field – the bouncer? What was the technical and mental side to it? We asked the man himself to dissect the shot that gave him the bulk of his 27,483 international runs.
Is it a true story that when you first walked into the Australian Cricket Academy, Rod Marsh put you up against a 6’6 feet tall fast bowler in the nets. You pulled the first ball and he said, “This bloke will play for Australia.”?
It is a true story. I was a young 15-year-old bloke then. I went into the nets without a helmet as back then I never used to wear one. I was brought up on hard wickets, I was always a young boy playing against men and men liked bowling bouncers to the young boys all the time. So, I learnt pretty quickly that one, if I was going to survive and two, if I was going to score runs, I’m going to have to play well off the backfoot.
Technically, what was the natural advantage you had when it came to the backfoot play?
If I break down my technique now and talk about and reason why I play the pull and the hook shot well, it’s just about the way I picked the bat up. My initial movements make it easy for me to be able to play that shot. Also, being able to pick the length of the ball early is what differentiates the great players from the good ones. I guess, with my pull and hook shots I picked the length of the shorter ball a bit better than most guys did.
The bouncer is the most intimidating thing a batsman has to face at the crease. Didn’t it ever scare you?
I’ve never been scared on a cricket pitch. Never. But I can understand how tail-end batsmen who can’t protect themselves would be scared of facing short-pitched fast bowling. Yes, it tests international players. You can’t afford to have any weaknesses at all because the opposition will find it out pretty quickly.
Is it fair to say that your penchant for dispatching the bouncers to the boundary was a reflection of your personality – fearless and always game for a challenge?
I think so. When I was batting, I always tried to counter-attack. I batted at No.3 for the most part of my career and I wanted to put the pressure back on the fast bowlers. I wanted to let them know that they can’t just bowl a bouncer at me and think of it as chance to stop me from scoring or getting me out. I wanted to attack and let them know that if they wanted to bowl a bouncer at me, there was every chance that I will get hold of it and hit it for a boundary. Also, I think if as a top-order batsman you can play that shot well, you can make a statement on behalf of your whole team.
Which was the most fearsome spell of short-pitched fast bowling that you faced during your career?
I have faced some really tough spells of fast bowling. I’ve still got a video of Shoaib Akhtar bowling to me at the WACA and that’s the fastest spell I’ve faced in my career. I remember Justin Langer was at the other end batting with me and he wouldn’t run. I was stuck there at one end facing Akhtar and Justin was at the other end leaning on his bat and making sure that I face all the balls.
Do you remember any incident where you shattered the morale of a charged up fast bowler by dismissing his bouncers?
I don’t think that you ever shatter the morale of anyone because the beauty about bowling is that no matter how hard and far the batsman hits it, the ball always comes back to you and you have another chance of getting him out. As a batsman you’re always trying to do that – stamp your authority on the bowler – but I don’t think it works like that too much.
Someone like a Rahul Dravid would roll his wrists at the finish of his pull shot to keep the ball down. You hardly did that. Your pull shot often finished with your bat facing skywards.
It depends on the field placement a lot of the time. If there was a deep square leg and a fine leg, I’d try and keep the ball down a little bit. If the boundary is short on that side and I feel that I can hit the ball over the fielders’ heads, I thought I’m better off hitting a six than a four. It depends on the line of the ball as well. If the ball is directed at you, it’s a bit easier to roll your wrists on it. If it’s wide and away from your body, it’s easier to hit it over the top for a six.
You could place the shot from anywhere between the mid-on to the fine-leg!
That again depends on the line of the ball. For the wider balls, the area between mid-on and mid-wicket is easier to target. But if you want to be able to play a shot well over the period of time, you have to keep practising it, whether it is your strength or weakness. I always worked hard on my backfoot game and I guess, that’s why I got the results that I did.
You also had a vast margin of height from where you picked up the ball to pull it. You pulled balls pitched on your knee and face-height.
Adam Gilchrist could do that really well as well and Mark Taylor was another Australian batsman who did that really well. I guess that was just about picking the length. I generally did that as my innings went on. Early in the innings I only pulled the ball if it was chest-high or above. But once I started to pick up the length better, I was able to pull slightly fuller deliveries. But you only do that when you’ve got great confidence on the wicket and how much it’s going to bounce. For instance, in the subcontinent you wouldn’t be pulling too many balls from down around your knees because the ball could stay low and you could play on or get bowled. On true bouncy wickets in Australia it gets a lot easier to do that.
Given the vast height-margin of the balls you’d pull away, did the bowlers try to deceive you in length – trying to get you pulling to a fuller delivery?
Absolutely, they did and I got out a lot of times doing that. But I scored a lot of runs off that shot and for me to give it up was difficult. I guess it’s like if you’re out a couple of times playing the cover drive, it’s pretty hard to stop playing it. I just had to back myself to play that shot. If it got me runs, it was good but if I got out doing it, I just had to make sure I played it better the next time.
Was leaving the ball a big part of your backfoot game?
Being aggressive-minded my first intent was to hit it for a boundary. If it wasn’t quite there I could defend it or let it go. Like I’ve told all the young batsmen coming through, your first option should be to score a six. If you can’t hit s six, try for a four. If you can’t get that, go for a three and work it down from there. It shouldn’t be the other way – going with a defensive mindset, looking to survive rather than scoring runs.
As a kid, which batsman you admired in regards with playing the bouncers?
Viv Richards was obviously one. We had Kim Hughes, who was a very good hooker and puller of the ball. He played the West Indies fast bowlers most of the time without the helmet. Ian Chappell was very good at those shots as well. So, for me growing up, it was about looking at these people and studying how they did and trying to make myself as good as those people.