To paraphrase the eminent American poet, Robert Frost, great cricketers do not great commentators make. Not usually anyway. As easy on the eye as any batsman, David Gower rated himself a raconteur but had a commentating style that grated, to my ears at least.
His erstwhile Sky UK comms partner Ian Botham was the ultimate bar-emptier during his playing days but a serious plodder behind the mic. “The crowd go ballistic,” barked Beefy as Kasprowicz gloved Harmison to decide the Edgbaston 2005 nail-biter. Benaudesque it was not.
Ah, Richie! The late great commentator by whom every other commentator is judged, unfairly so, such were the standards he set. “Don’t say anything unless you can add to the pictures,” was his maxim, one that most of the current occupants of the Channel 9 box seem determined to ignore, such is their predilection for opening their mouths when they don’t necessarily have, well, anything to say.
I say “most” because there is one former Australian great who is proving to be every bit as adept with the mic as he was with the bat, and surprisingly so. Step forward Ricky Thomas Ponting.
Punter, the commentator is everything Punter the player was not, at least to this untrained Pommie spectator’s eye: a great batsman for sure, but not such a great captain and a pretty boorish, obnoxious and downright unlikeable one at that. When he wasn’t mouthing off at umpires and opposition players and coaches, he was claiming grassed catches, chuntering about some perceived injustice or other and being objectionable at pretty much every turn.
As panto villains go, he was top draw, the guy we all loved to hate. David Warner wishes we Poms hate him as much as we hated Ricky Ponting.
How we laughed when England made 407 in a day at Edgbaston after Ricky put them in on a belter. How we laughed when Ricky mouthed off at the England dressing room after being run out at Trent Bridge. How we laughed when Ricky lost three Ashes series. And how we laughed when Jacques Kallis brought Ricky to his knees at Adelaide in 2012, the career-ending dismissal to end all career-ending dismissals. See ya Ricky, and take your 13,378 test runs at 51.85, three World Cup wins and world record for most test wins by any player with you!
I remember groaning the first time I saw Ricky Ponting the pundit. “Here we go,” I thought. “Another one-eyed Aussie calling it in his team’s favor.” And then something strange happened. As he spoke, a different person began to emerge before my very eyes. Gone was spiky post-match-interview Ponting, a man who seemed to preface every response he gave with an obligatory, cranky “Aw look”, and in his place came a well-spoken, composed and thoughtful Ponting. Knowing more than a bit about the game, he genuinely seemed to want to inform his audience and to be impartial about it.
Impartial. That was another of Richie’s watchwords. When you listened to Benaud you would never have known he once captained Australia. Behind the mic, he was a cricket lover first and an Aussie a very distant second. When Trevor Chappell bowled that underarm ball to New Zealand’s Brian McKechnie, Richie pulled no punches in letting the cricket world know what he thought about it. “One of the worst things I have ever seen done on a cricket field,” was his scathing verdict.
I’d like to think Ricky would say pretty much the same thing if something similar happened today. For Ponting the commentator, the sheer wonder of cricket comes before any narrow national interests. Take the thrilling climax to the Headingley 2019 Ashes test, when he shared Sky commentary duties with Nasser Hussain, another former Ashes captain to have made a seamless transition to the media world. In a recent podcast with Ben Stokes, Hussain expressed admiration for his co-commentator’s impartiality, not least because he’d been coaching the Aussie players that very morning.
“Wowee!” cooed an awestruck Ricky as Stokes bunted ball after ball into the delirious Headingley crowd, his appreciation for England’s miracle worker clear for all to see. And with that appreciation came insight and knowledge. Critical of Tim Paine’s wonky decision-making, Ponting also seemed to know what Stokes was thinking, correctly calling his tactics as the run chase ticked down into single figures.
With their endless barking and hollering, many modern-day sports commentators detract from the moment. Helped by Hussain, Ponting added to it that day.
A snarling pit bull of a hooker in Will Carling’s largely unloved England rugby union team of the late 80s and early 90s, Brian Moore has achieved a similar transformation from a player opposition fans loved to hate to a respected, knowledgeable, unbiased observer who puts the game before national allegiances.
That jump from pitch to commentary box reveals just how little we know of our sporting villains and heroes. While there is obviously more to Ponting the person than Ponting the commentator or Ponting the player for that matter, in swapping the whites for a polo shirt and chinos he has shown that even the prickliest of competitors can make for the most engaging and likeable of analysts. Hell, he’s so likeable these days I’d even let bygones be bygones and buy him a drink. What are you on, Punter?