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Reflections on ‘The Ponting Principle’

Australian cricket captain, Ricky Ponting, is unarguably one of the best batsmen the world has ever seen. His career statistics in all forms of the game makes awe-inspiring reading: total of 11,435 runs in Tests (average: 55.88) and 12,043 in ODIs (average: 43.32). He has scored 38 Test centuries and 28 in ODIs.

In the first Semi-Final of the ongoing Champions Trophy in South Africa, Ponting scored an unbeaten 111 of 115 balls and with Shane Watson (136 not out, off 132) to see off a resurgent England team. It was not ‘extraordinary’ on Ponting’s part because he is so good that one almost expects him to deliver each time he walks out to the middle.

Sri Lanka is out of the tournament after weak outings against England and New Zealand following a clinical performance against hosts South Africa. The sports pages this Sunday are full of cogent post-mortems on Sri Lanka’s early exit. I am sure Kumar Sangakkara, the selectors, coaches and others involved with cricket in Sri Lanka will have their own theories and, if they are not arrogant, will at least read these analyses and pick up some tips for the future.

I am hopeful, too, that they will not miss a brilliant three-word explanation of success offered by Ricky Ponting regarding the secret of his team’s success: ‘Respect every ball’. That was his message to his team mates before taking on England, a team that the Australians thrashed 6-1 just a few weeks ago. The subtext is very clear: no complacency, nothing frivolous, no showmanship; just discipline and hard work in the middle. It worked. I would say it works most of the time.

What is respect? It is about treating each delivery on its merits. It is also about playing the percentages; taking risks only when you can afford to take them and milking the singles until you are set. If Shane Warne offers you a full toss you don’t pat it down back to him because he is Shane Warne: you clobber it over midwicket because it is a loose ball meant to be put away. This does not mean that Shane Warne is having an off day, it must be remembered. His next delivery could be a replica of the ball-of-the-century (his first on English soil) at Old Trafford when he got the ball to pitch several inches away from the leg stump and turn back to take Mike Gatting’s off stump. What came before, then, could give an indication of what can come next, but all you should take away is the confidence. Going overboard might get you a couple of boundaries but the law of averages will play out and often this could be the difference between victory and defeat.

Treating every ball with respect is easier said than done. It takes hard work by way of preparation. It requires discipline and a commitment to both team and self to go the extra mile, i.e. to work on all aspects of one’s game, especially those elements which a coach cannot hone beyond a particular point. You can have all the respect you like but if you don’t have the skill (and this includes mental preparation, positive frame of mind and a thinking cricketing brain) you are probably not going to score with the consistency of a Ponting or Tendulkar.

I remember Sri Lanka’s former captain, Ranjan Madugalle commenting on life using a cricketing example: ‘Whenever I find myself getting out early, or consistently getting out in the same manner, I go back to the basics: my stance, my back lift, things like that.’

‘Whenever you go wrong’, he told a handful of schoolboys, ‘you have to get back to the fundamentals, find out where the error is and work hard to correct it’.

This requires, among other things, a strong capacity to be humble. There are three things that inhibit learning: laziness, arrogance and the unwillingness to suffer the pain.

Kumar Sangakkara will bounce back, I am sure because he has a mind and he can employ it to discover all the chinks in his armour. How about the rest of the team? How about politicians, officials and citizens?

‘Respect every ball’ is a lesson that can be applied in all engagements, I believe, where these is contestation of one kind or another, for example, foreign affairs. We know there are bowlers who are difficult to negotiate. We know there are bowlers who may not have the speed or variation but will bowl a nagging line and length. We know there are bowlers who can turn the ball on any wicket. We know also that there are good bowlers who will have off-days, bowl a wayward line and an erratic length. We must not forget that there are rank bad bowlers who can have a good day at the office, who can even come up with a peach of a delivery now and then.

In the international arena, we get people who are pretty ordinary, in terms of intellect, integrity and diplomatic endowments. Most of these ‘bowlers’ can be put away without too much sweat. On the other hand, even an ordinary bowler can be counted on to attack a batsman’s known weakness and sooner or later get him out. The lesson: cannot afford to be complacent.

We also have to take note of the second key word in the Ponting Principle: ‘ball’. You play the ball and not the man. Sure, it is good to have a sense of the bowler’s character, history and so on, which no doubt gives the batsman a clue about his thinking process, but in the final instance you have to deal with ball and now who delivers it.

‘Respect the ball’ is made of three simple words. Behind the words is a philosophy that can make a huge difference in the success rate if applied comprehensively to our engagements. Let us hope that Sri Lanka Cricket takes note and let us all read deep into what Ricky Ponting said. It won’t harm us, that’s clear.

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