August 2009
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Benj Moorehead: Defending the boo boys

August 27th, 2009 by Benj Moorehead in England, Test cricket, The Ashes

Up came Ricky Ponting to not-collect the Ashes, and once again we saw the affectionate smile that has had us in danger of liking him all summer. The Oval responded with equal affection. Then Ricky made a reasonable passing remark about the statistics of the series not adding up to the end result. A tremor of boos rippled through the crowd, the last of the series. But when the interview was over it rose to give their pantomime villain a rousing Oval ovation. Ricky was their friend. It was a revealing end to an issue that has left established critics calling the crowd’s treatment of Australia’s captain “nasty”. Was it really ever so?

The Australian squad that came to these shores this year was full of names unknown to much of the British public. Yes, there was Katich, there was Clarke, both of whom were here in 2005. But Ricky was the only personality imprinted on the minds of everyone who was taken by 2005. He was the name with which the public could tap into this unfamiliar group of Aussies.

The England fans didn’t want to take this man apart, to spit on him. The ritual booing of Ricky was, like the cricket, just a game. ‘We want you to be our summer villain,’ it was saying, ‘please play your part Ricky. We don’t hate you, but you’re the enemy’s best batsman. You’re their captain goddamit!’

And Ricky understood this better than most. He played his part, accepting with humility and a cheeky grin the role he had been assigned. After the third Test at the Birmingham Bull Ring Ricky said a couple of things that were lost amid the cry of outrage among the British (and Australian) media at what was misunderstood as disrespect. “I’ve actually really enjoyed the spectator participation in this series,” he said. “The Barmy Army are the best group of supporters in any sport around the world.” He also made it clear that any complaints weren’t coming from the Australians.

Ricky was thriving in the role of public enemy number one. This was part of the challenge of playing the Ashes away from home. (England better be ready for it in 2010-11.)

What’s more, the People versus Ricky Ponting was part of the narrative that makes these contests so much fun. The cricket is important, of course, but so too are the personalities that go with it. The Ponting-bashing was a follow-on from 2005. That was the series that stole the people from their normal lives and brought them into a contest that was full of, not just extraordinary Test matches, but of various personalities that brought the games to life. The crowd wanted some more this year, and Ricky was their man.

For a long period on victory Sunday the Oval crowd was stunned into silence. This was when Ricky and Mike Hussey were playing so well that a target of 546 seemed a boundary away. Ricky, in particular, was imperiously free-flowing, picking up length as well as ever and scoring quickly. During these engrossing moments the crowd hardly breathed. It seemed in awe of its favourite villain who might now defeat the English heroes after all. Then the run-out, the joyous relief, and the unanimous applause for Ricky.

It was brilliant narrative, excellent sport, and all very much in the spirit of the game.

Benj Moorehead is editorial assistant of The Wisden Cricketer

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