Peerless Ponting too good for Bangladesh
For much of the last decade, it was the cricket buff's favourite topic of discussion. Who was the world's best batsman, Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara? Now and then, other names would enter the picture, like Steve Waugh after the epic history-altering 200 at Sabina Park, or Matthew Hayden after his golden run in the new millennium, but opinion would always be split.
These days, the debate has become redundant. Ricky Ponting's splendid face-saving century at Fatullah was his ninth in 14 Tests, and while the numbers are sensational - an average of 76 over the past 10 Tests - it's been the nature of those innings that has elevated him to another plane. There have been batsmen aplenty with an appetite for centuries, big ones at that, but few that have the knack of playing defining innings with the mind-numbing consistency that Ponting has managed since the Ashes were surrendered.
This rich vein of form was first mined while Australia's Ashes campaign unravelled in the wake of a convincing win at Lord's. Flamed in the media for the decision to field first at Edgbaston, Ponting arrived at Old Trafford under as much pressure as any Australian captain in modern times. It didn't help that Glenn McGrath wasn't fully fit, and that Jason Gillespie appeared a caricature of the bowler who had been peerless in India just months earlier. Finishing the first innings 142 adrift - Ponting made just seven - Australia were then set an improbable 423 to win.
When Ponting walked out to face the eighth ball of the final morning, Australia were 398 adrift. By the time he departed - ninth man out, with 69 still required - only four overs remained in the day's play. Brett Lee and McGrath got generous applause as they held on for a thrilling draw, but it was Ponting's imperious 156 that ensured that Australia went to Trent Bridge still on level terms.
After squandering starts in the next two Tests and the one-off Super Series, he then set the tone for Australia's resurgence with a magnificent 149 at the Gabba against West Indies - none of his team-mates went past 50. And when the South Africans came to town, he was fire-fighting yet again, scripting a superb hundred at the MCG on an opening day when eight wickets fell, and two fabulous centuries at Sydney resulted in an unlikely run-chase being reduced to a parkland stroll - until that moment, no team had chased down more than 276 in over 120 years of Tests at the SCG.
Upon crossing the Indian Ocean, he continued to torment South Africa, compiling hundreds in both innings at Durban to help seal the series win, against an attack that was anything but pop-gun. Shaun Pollock may have been someway past his best, but Makhaya Ntini and Andre Nel were consistently hostile and threatening, while Jacques Kallis rediscovered the bowling mojo that once made him a genuine allrounder.
After such sustained heroics, Ponting could have been forgiven for thinking that a tour of Bangladesh would be an ideal opportunity to gather breath and let those around him do the innings-building. But his first-innings failure was symptomatic of Australia's false start at Fatullah, and it needed an effort at least the equal of Sydney and Johannesburg - where Australia had chased down 287 and 292 - to prevent the greatest shock in the history of the game.
In Ponting and the re-invented Matthew Hayden, Australia had men perfectly equipped for the job. Mohammad Rafique had an outstanding match, while Enamul Haque and the new-ball pairing of Shahadat Hossain and Mashrafe Mortaza were impressive in patches, but both Ponting and Hayden ground out runs with the resolve of men for whom defeat was not even an option.
Hayden's misjudgment of a run, and another middle-order implosion, meant that Ponting had to do the hard yards himself. There was assistance from Brett Lee, probably the most accomplished and nerveless tail-end batsman in world cricket at the moment, and blocker-supreme Gillespie, but ultimately it was all about Ponting and a near-faultless 118. But for a mistimed hook - strength being weakness in times of strife? - it was as controlled an innings as you could hope to see on a pitch that offered plenty for the slow bowlers.
By combining a prodigious appetite for run-scoring with utter imperviousness to pressure, best exemplified by the awe-inspiring 143 from 159 balls at the SCG, Ponting has traversed nearly virgin territory. Tendulkar's critics will always point to his failings in a crisis situation, while many of Lara's monumental scores came when there was nothing at stake. Ponting, like his Australian predecessors Stan McCabe and Allan Border, has a mongrel's appetite for a scrap, and despite the scar left by Steve Harmison at Lord's, you'll never see him backing away.
The loss of the Ashes, and the tidal wave of criticism that followed, is something that he will always have to live with. But the manner in which both he and his team have responded to adversity is testament to their greatness. Blips against Bangladesh aside, the real test starts at Brisbane on November 23. No matter how many runs he scores, and how many centuries he makes - and right now, Tendulkar's tally is in his sights - Ponting's destiny is irrevocably tied to the fate of the Ashes. The road to redemption will be complete only when the urn is regained.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo