In 1981, at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Nassau, Bahamas, boxing great Mohammad Ali entered the ring for the last time.
His opponent was Trevor Berbick, a Jamaican who few thought belonged in the same ring as the champion.
In the end, Berbick won easily, by unanimous decision. Ali was but a shadow of his former self.
Yes, he got in a few punches, and might even have won the fifth and sixth rounds; he danced a little too, to remind fans of the performer he once was. But his powers had waned. Ali was no longer Ali.
I was reminded of Ali’s decline recently as I watched Ricky Ponting play in the Caribbean. Australia’s greatest batsman since Bradman had nothing like the command at the crease that was once his hallmark. Where he was once calm, positive and assured, he was now hurried and uncertain.
Not all the time: during his 41 in Trinidad he looked more fluent than at any other time in the series. He punished anything on his legs and even unsheathed a pull-shot or two, as if to remind the fans that he still had it. But, for the most part, it was clear to all who have watched him throughout the years: Ponting was no longer Ponting.
In the first innings of the Trinidad Test, Kemar Roach, continuing his battle with Ponting from the last West Indies tour of Australia, got him with a peach of a delivery. Ponting was squared up by a ball that angled in and landed on off stump, then straightened and bounced – one that would probably have defeated him in his prime as well.
What epitomised his troubles to me, however, was a delivery he faced a few minutes earlier. Roach had bowled a short ball that he top-edged and skied trying to pull. It wasn’t a particularly quick delivery but the renowned punisher of everything short seemed harried.
In his prime, he would have been on his back foot almost as soon as the ball was released, waited, and then decided which boundary board he would disturb, or where in the stands the ball would have to be retrieved.
Die-hard fans of Ponting would no doubt point out that not long ago he scored two hundreds, including a mammoth 221, and averaged 108 in a series against India. Yet they would have to agree that India’s bowling attack was one of the most inept to visit Australia in years.
Michael Clarke team’s next Test engagements will be against South Africa in November, and one does not expect their highly lethal bowling unit to mimic the impotence of the Indians. Australia’s selectors have a decision to make.
Well, not just one, because their openers need to be looked at as well. But in my view Ponting needs to remove himself from the side before November or the selectors should respectfully ask him to go.
Respectfully, because he has been a feared and faithful warrior in Australia’s cause, and so cannot be cast away lightly. The run-of-the-mill player is easier to handle in such circumstances. Aware that their abilities were limited to begin with, they, and their fans, find separation less traumatic.
The dominant player, on the other hand, sometimes fails to come to terms with their diminishing powers, and their fans often cling to the folklore long after the final chapter should have been closed.
If the question then becomes who is ready to replace him, then I would answer that it doesn’t matter. Heroes should not be allowed to regress to the point where they become unrecognisable.
Not that his legacy is in jeopardy – Mohammad Ali is still the greatest. But just as it saddened boxing devotees to see one of the sport’s icons dominated by a lumbering journeyman, Ponting should ensure that he not be made to look anything other than the great player that he undoubtedly is.