Whether it was a decisive influence or not we shall never know, but Ricky Ponting revealed this week that he personally lobbied Rahul Dravid not to retire. "I remember after the last series in India there was a lot of talk and speculation about Dravid being finished," Ponting told espncricinfo.com, "and I went and found him at the end of the series and said: 'Don't you even think about retiring,' because I just saw some stuff in a few of his innings that suggested he was still a very, very good player." Ponting subsequently received text messages from Dravid before and after the last Ashes series to the same effect.
It is wonderful to think that these two living legends should so cajole each other to defy their advancing years for the benefit not just of their respective teams, but spectators and fans everywhere. In Dravid's case, the decision not to retire was vindicated by his outstanding performance against England. Ponting, meanwhile, is in the runs in the early stages of Australia's tour of Sri Lanka, and says he is feeling "really good" ahead of the opening Test on Wednesday.
There are deep similarities between the Test records of these two greats, so that when I overheard a very rowdy argument at the Oval last week about which was the better player, and undertook to research the matter, coming up with a decisive answer proved nigh on impossible.
Dravid is 38, Ponting 36. Dravid has scored 12,775 runs in 157 Tests at 53 exactly; Ponting has scored 12,363 in 152 Tests at 53.51. Dravid has scored 35 centuries and 60 half-centuries with a highest score of 270; Ponting has scored 39 centuries and 56 half-centuries with a highest score of 257.
Statistically, then, Ponting just edges it. He will probably end up with both more runs and more centuries, at a higher average, than his Indian counterpart. Both men bat at No 3, having started out in Test cricket lower down the order, and both men were burdened for years with the captaincy of their country. Liberated of that duty, Dravid has focused on his batting and improved it. Now Ponting, who has handed the captain's armband to Michael Clarke, is looking to do the same.
Both have scored great hundreds under immense pressure, and effectively turn 50s into hundreds. But in style they differ in several crucial ways, most of which can be traced to the batting conditions in which they grew up. Dravid, brought up on dry dustbowls, hooks only very rarely; Ponting, brought up on harder and truer wickets, is together with Viv Richards and Graeme Pollock among the best hookers ever. His strike rate of 59.36 is much higher than Dravid's 42.45.
To the spectator, there is an obvious difference in their presence at the crease. Dravid is exceptionally still on his leg-stump guard. He took middle stump in his early career, and adjusted to open up more off-side strokes. But Ponting plays on the walk, shuffling from leg stump guard to in front of middle, and pressing forward with his front leg in a pre-emptive move.
Both men are comfortable against spin and happy to hit against it. Ponting is exceptionally quick on his feet; Dravid prefers to play with his legs, moving right forward to half-volleys, but otherwise trying his utmost to move right back and use the depth of his crease. As for temperament, Dravid has been adept as an emergency opener, can also keep wicket, and is generally unflappable; the often hot-headed Ponting is more likely to risk his match fee.
An unenviable choice, then. Ponting has the marginally better record, and played more innings on green or bowler-friendly wickets; Dravid offers his team-mates more options. He is also probably the most charming man in the game today and on those not particularly batting-related grounds, I'd pick the Indian.