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July 4, 2000
Ricky Ponting unplugged
I walked into my first press conference - held at the five-star extravagance of the Regent Mumbai - very nervous and slightly awed. Being a college student interning at rediff.com for the summer, I had never been to a press conference before. Let alone one in which I would have to be one of those jostling, shoving media people and actually expected to ask questions. Still, here was a chance to meet and quiz one of my favourite cricketers. And here was also an opportunity to get a feel for what on-the-field journalism is like. Thus, it was nervousness mingled with a tinge of excitement
Ricky Ponting had been brought to Bombay by cricketnext.com, a web site that claims to be "India's leading cricket portal". The web site is conducting three ''Ricky Ponting Coaching Clinics'', in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore. He is here to coach budding "Tendulkars and Kumbles" in an attempt to "popularize the game and improve the level of young cricketers".
Improvement is sorely needed, yes. But popularization? The game doesn't need popularization; it needs damage control. The biggest sign being the decline in television ratings during the Asia Cup. Is the insatiable Indian cricket audience slowly getting fed-up? (No pun intended, I promise!)
But, anyway, back to Ponting. Five minutes after the scheduled start, he walked into the room and immediately composed his face into the look one puts on when a gazillion cameras start flashing in your face. I sat down quietly, watching the photographers have their moment, and thought, "Only five minutes late? Not bad for IST!"
The press conference kicked off with cricketnext.com's managing director, Sanjay Jha, launching into a speech in which he informed us exactly what his web site is doing, its mission statement, its plans, blah blah. After going on at length, he ended by saying, "I don't want to waste your time by giving an advertisement for cricketnext.com." And all of my nervousness quickly dissipated into amusement.
Eventually, Ponting got hold of the microphone and we zealous reporters were let loose. The first few questions were simple enough, focussing on the cricket clinic, Ponting's previous coaching experience, the state of his injury and his plans to play county cricket. He was then asked what Indian cricket lacks. His response was that India have a great record at home and we shouldn't forget that. What lets the Indian team down is its fielding and that is one of the aspects he is going to be addressing in his clinic. He also intends to give tips on the mental toughness that a cricketer needs to get him through the rough moments he will inevitably face during his career.
And what makes the Australians so good? Ponting thinks it's their confidence and ability to adapt well to different situations. He talked about how he felt when he was dropped and how it made him a much stronger person and a better cricketer. He's been dropped three times, and each time he's managed to learn a great deal and come back even better. Furthermore, the entire team is filled with good athletes and they don't have to hide anyone during a game, he said.
A dig at us, perhaps? Whenever India takes the field, it's painfully obvious that some players need to be shielded. Some probably need to be downright concealed!
Around then, I decided it was about time that I piped in with my two bits. During his absence, Damien Martyn seemed to have established himself in the team. I asked Ponting how easy it would be for him to regain his place, especially now that he is being touted as Australia's next vice-captain. He replied, "When Damien took my place, he said that he would just keep my seat warm for me. Well, he didn't just do that, he set it on fire! Yes, it will be hard for me to regain my place but I will fight to do so."
A nice display of humility and humour, I thought.
Sitting there, I got the feeling that it was simply a matter of time before the match-fixing saga was broached. Some of my colleagues were positively straining at the leash, despite the organiser's pleas to keep the focus on the coaching clinics. Eventually, of course, it happened. However, the Australian was more than prepared for this. He firmly stated that though he is saddened by it, he is convinced that the Australian Cricket Board is doing all it can to address the issue.
In response to a question from me, he said he had never had any personal experience with match-fixing. I had asked him to comment on Steve Waugh's assertion that he had, on occasion, thought a couple of matches ended strangely. Smiling, he said, that Waugh has been around a lot longer than he has and perhaps this had happened before he came into the team.
When asked if a bookmaker had ever approached him, he grinned and admitted that it had happened. However, that was in Australia and the offer was not made by an Indian. He refused to be any more forthcoming. When pressed for details, he simply said, "It doesn't matter."
At this point, he was rescued by the cricketnext.com team which insisted that the subject be changed. However, there were no more subjects on the agenda and the press conference quickly wrapped up. During the reception that followed, I joined the crowd milling around Ponting. During that time (as well as the press conference), he struck me as an extremely articulate, intelligent person, with a disarming sense of humour. I was tempted to ask him for an autograph but desisted, thinking that would be unprofessional. As I left, I realized how truly unprofessional I was for I had even neglected to carry a visiting card with me.
As I headed back to the office, I reflected back on what a surprising day it had been. The beauty of working in the media is that you never know what's going to happen next; or what's going to happen to you. I walked into the office this morning thinking it would be a slow day and ended up meeting one of the few cricketers I love to watch. How cool is that?
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