Australia v South Africa, 2nd Test, Melbourne, 1st day December 26, 2008

Ponting bats himself some relief

At the end of a year he this week described as the toughest of his career, Ricky Ponting's outstandingly fluent 101 on Boxing Day was an excellent sign

Ricky Ponting's 37th Test century - and fourth at the MCG - was particularly pleasing following some intense criticism © Getty Images

Controversy has followed Ricky Ponting over the past 12 months but generally not when he has made runs. At the end of a year he this week described as the toughest of his career, Ponting's outstandingly fluent 101 on Boxing Day was an excellent sign. He is the kind of captain who needs to lead by example and appears happier and sharper in the field when he has been successful at the crease. His hundred will therefore be a great relief not only for him but for the entire team.

By his own high standards Ponting's figures are slightly leaner than normal in 2008 but only by similar criteria to Warren Buffett, who might have been left a few billion short due to the financial crisis. Ponting has still made four centuries, 1,000 runs and averaged 45. However, it is when he has failed to perform with the bat that Australia have faced their greatest challenges.

From the controversial Sydney Test in January to the over-rate fiasco in Nagpur to the criticism of his poor body language as the Perth Test slipped away last week, Ponting's captaincy has pleased few people outside the squad this year. In each of those matches he was condemned for his leadership, particularly in the field on the final day.

In none of those games was Ponting happy with how he had batted. His best score across the six innings was 55 and he averaged 20. It was the same story during the 2005 Ashes, when his captaincy was queried after he handed back the urn for the first time since the 1980s. Ponting's own form on that tour was well down - he averaged less than 40.

Ponting is not a tactical guru or first-rate man-manager like predecessors such as Mark Taylor. That rarely mattered while he was surrounded by champions whose roles were so clearly defined they could have been in a dictionary. Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Adam Gilchrist never had to be told how to do their jobs.

But in an evolving side that features a mix of new men finding their feet at Test level and older mainstays trying to justify their spots, Ponting must bring something concrete to the captaincy table. The best thing for him to do is lead by example. When Ponting scores runs, the controversy, criticism and danger from other sides tends to die away. If he wants a less thorny 2009 as leader then piling on a stack of centuries would be the best thing he could do.

When he is in the sort of form he showed today, it's easy to imagine him having such a year. Ponting at his best makes batting look about as hard as tying shoelaces and he was close to his peak in this innings. There were some nerves before lunch, particularly when Dale Steyn bypassed the outside edge with a cracking outswinger and then found the bat only to see Neil McKenzie drop a sitter at third slip when Ponting had 24.

"You always try to capitalise on those sort of chances that come your way," Ponting said. "I think that summed up what my mindset was a little bit before the lunch break. It was just a half-hearted 'Do I play or do I not?' and tried to drag the bat out of the way and it caught the bottom on the way through."

Ponting came out after the interval in a more attacking frame of mind and his first shot of the session was a classic straight drive that raced away for four off Makhaya Ntini. He timed his drives down the ground perfectly and especially enjoyed Ntini, who he dispatched for three consecutive boundaries, including a superb pair of back-foot drives just forward of point.

"After the lunch break I came back and decided to be a bit more positive," he said. "The lunch break just happened at the right time for me. I started to feel like I was moving a bit better, started to see the ball a bit better and I just had a lot clearer mind. I decided to be a bit more aggressive and put it back on their bowlers a little bit."

Ponting was frustrated to get an inside edge to short leg just before tea, shortly after reaching triple figures for the first time since the opening Test against India in October. He felt he was the only batsman to accurately pick the pace of the wicket and had a huge hundred in him. But after stumps he was cheerful and pleased with the wash-up. It is a positive frame of mind that Australia will hope rubs off on the rest of the squad

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo