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 invades his soul 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." In case there was room for doubt he added: "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 struggling for form. It is 12 innings since he made a fifty, 26 innings and almost two years since his most recent hundred.
There is a difference having this run at going on 37, as Ponting is, than at 27. It becomes easier to suggest that the light has faded to a flicker, and, come to think of it, at 27 the probability is that a player would be dropped for such a sequence.
Sometime in the next few days, Ponting's immediate 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." That might be good for Ponting, or it might not.
The possibility then is that the match in Johannesburg will be his 156th and last, equal to Allan Border's Australian caps record. It would have a certain congruity. If he failed to make runs in either innings the point of giving kids a chance would have added lustre; if he were to make a big score there would be a case for his going out at the top.
As batsmen, Ponting and Nasser Hussain have little in common, but as lovers of the game they are on equal terms. Still now, Hussain can barely walk past a television set without switching it on to check if there is a cricket match being shown from somewhere round the world. Ponting is similar and he might also 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. It must have been a particularly extravagant occasion because he arrived for his flight minutes after the last of a bunch of English reporters left and they had gone home with the dawn chorus.
But that was a turning point. Duly censored by his bosses, Ponting recognised from then on that his talent was a precious commodity not to be messed around with. He went on to captain Australia in 322 international matches, 77 of them Tests.
For most of them, he has been 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 of the game. They are Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Ponting, Brian Lara and Jacques Kallis.
If you wanted to be entertained to distraction, 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.
Vulnerable at the start of innings (but aren't they all?), sometimes undone by hard hands going at the ball, he was impregnable once in. But there has been precious little lately either of getting in or staying in. The unburdening of the captaincy has not done the trick and a poor Ashes series last winter has been followed by three under-achieving Test matches.
Australia's next series is against New Zealand early in December after which a rejuvenated India come visiting. Between now and then, Inverarity and his fresh panel will assess whether the team needs a similar spring clean. It is in Ponting's favour that successors are not banging the door down and there is certainly no 21-year-old Ricky Ponting.
Maybe Inverarity will feel Ponting has something more to give. Michael Clarke, his successor as captain, has plenty to do trying to revive an ailing team without acting as mentor to untried fledglings. But then Australia's captains traditionally walk off into the sunset once they no longer hold the job. The last to play on after giving up was Ian Chappell and he had handed over to his little brother, Greg.
What Langer was driving at in his defence was Ponting's overwhelming passion, knowledge, desire and willingness. Ponting genuinely believes he has something to offer his side through his presence (and he will almost certainly come back into the game after a break of a year or two following retirement to spend some time with his young family). He is a hard-nosed competitor who has invariably been magnanimous in defeat.
He is unselfish. At the nets during the Ashes Test in Adelaide last year, he spent almost an hour in a one-to-one with current captain Clarke, who was out of form at the time, trying to eradicate flaws. And of all his great moments he tends to recall one in particular. It is not a magnificent Ashes triumph, or a World Cup win, or his 16th successive Test victory.
It was in South Africa of all places, where it might all now end. Three years ago, a young side which had been beaten at home by the same opposition, prevailed. "Purposely that day, I walked off the pitch about 10 or 15 metres ahead of some of the younger guys so I could look back from the boundary at the smiles on their faces and it showed how special it was."
Ponting deserves to go at a time of his own choosing, he really does. But the feeling is that he had better do it soon.
Steady decline: All bets are off for 'punter'
A brief flurry in 2008 aside, Ricky Ponting has been on the way down since 2006: his last great year, which ended with an Ashes rout of England as Australia regained the urn following England's win in 2005.
2003 1503 runs, average 100.20
2004 697 runs at 41.00
2005 1544 runs at 67.13
2006 1333 runs at 88.86
2007 192 runs at 38.40
2008 1182 runs at 47.28
2009 853 runs at 38.77
2010 813 runs at 36.95
2011 132 runs at 22.00
Not since 2006 has Ponting exceeded his career Test batting average of 52.72 in a given calendar year.
In the 2006-07 Ashes, which Australia won 5-0, Ponting scored an impressive 576 runs, with two centuries, at 82.28.
In the 2009 Ashes in England, Ponting scored 385 runs at 48.12.
In the 2010-11 Ashes in Australia, though, he played four Tests and scored just 113 runs, averaging only 16.14.
One possible hope for Ponting?
Ponting is only 36 years old. Rahul Dravid has enjoyed a recent renaissance: since his 36th birthday he has averaged 57.44 with 10 centuries. In the previous two years he averaged just 32.56 with three centuries.
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