Will Australia legend Ponting jump before he is pushed?

Stephen Brenkley

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After all these years, Ricky Ponting still loves playing cricket. Not for him the outlook of the jaundiced old pro hanging on for dear life because he fears what the future holds. There is no trace of envy about those coming up behind, no bitterness about what should have been.

Last week, Australia's batting coach, Justin Langer was lavish in his praise. Without much prompting, Langer said: "He is an incredibly important part of this team. His influence in the team is unbelievable."

It was perhaps unfortunate that Langer was speaking two days after Australia had been bowled out by South Africa for 47, their lowest total in a Test match for 109 years. With importance and influence on that scale, they might as well start picking Ponting and a bunch of larrikins.

Langer's heartfelt encomium was partly delivered doubtless because he was Ponting's team-mate in 83 Test matches when Australia ruled the world, partly because he was desperate to halt a tide of disapproval which implies that Ponting is hanging on for dear life. Ponting is, though, struggling for form. It is almost two years since his most recent hundred.

Sometime in the next few days, Ponting's future will become clearer. Australia's new national selector, John Inverarity, has yet to pick a team but he has flown out to South Africa for the second Test match which begins in Johannesburg today.

On being appointed, Inverarity was asked about his likely approach and part of his studied reply was: "When you sit down to select the side, you select for that next week, for later in the season, later in the year, the next year and probably two or three years hence. You need to keep all of those in balance as you make selections. Generating youth is the lifeblood of all sports. You need to keep an ideal balance in terms of age profile and how much longer people have got in their careers."

The possibility then is that the match in Johannesburg will be his 156th and last, equal to Allan Border's Australian caps record.

As batsmen, Ponting and Nasser Hussain have little in common, but as lovers of the game they are on equal terms. Ponting might do well to recall that Hussain knew when to call it a day, after scoring an unbeaten hundred that saw England to a Test match victory over New Zealand at Lord's.

Ponting started playing for Australia back in 1996. His talent was such that he had a bat contract at 12. Playing cricket was his destiny and it has never palled. He might have treated it a shade lightly as a young buck and the story of his drunken escapade in the Bourbon and Beefsteak nightclub in Sydney after a one-day international will forever be part of his back story.

But that was a turning point. Duly censored by his bosses, Ponting recognised from then on that his talent was a precious commodity.

He went on to captain Australia in 322 international matches, 77 of them Tests. For most of them, he was one of the best batsmen in the world. All the five leading Test run-scorers are from this or the immediate past generation, all of them laying immense claim to being greats. They are Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ponting, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis.

If you wanted to be entertained, Tendulkar and Lara would be your men. If you wanted someone to bat for your life it would be a toss-up between the other three. But if you wanted to be entertained while your life was also at stake, Ponting is a shoo-in.