South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Durban, 1st day March 24, 2006

Ponting approaches the pantheon

Ricky Ponting: closing in on immortality © Getty Images
We are reaching one of those transitionary eras when the established greats of the game start to seize up and slow down; Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara are the most notable casualties of the ravages of time, and the likes of Adam Gilchrist and Inzamam-ul-Haq cannot be far behind. But one man continues to march onwards and upwards with the surety of shot selection and clarity of purpose that is the hallmark of the very best.

Before this year is out, Ricky Ponting will have confirmed his place as one of the greatest Test cricketers that has ever lived. Perhaps that's something that we've known all along, but such has been the embarrassment of riches in Australia's middle-order, his brilliance has been just another shining star in a glittering firmament. Until now that is.

Since the loss of the Ashes last summer, and amid the unravelling of Australia's ageing line-up, something has clicked within Ponting. His twin centuries against West Indies at Brisbane in November were the launchpad for a scathing run of form that has earned him 1022 runs in just seven-and-a-half Tests. In that time, South Africa's attack has become his personal fiefdom - nine innings, four hundreds, 693 runs, an average of 86.63.

Today he took one of the most symbolic steps along the road to what might loosely be termed "the pantheon", by scoring his 29th Test century to draw level with the incomparable Sir Donald Bradman. The only other Australian cricketer to achieve this feat is Steve Waugh, who did so against England at Sydney in a show-stealing performance that brought the nation to a grinding halt.

At the age of 31, and with 8431 runs to his name already, every batting record in the book suddenly seems to be at his mercy. Of the players still in operation, only Lara and Tendulkar have more hundreds, while he is virtually neck-and-neck with Rahul Dravid in the run-scoring charts. None, however, has quite such an incentive for self-improvement, which is why in 18 months' time he could well be standing supreme at the pinnacle of the game.

Today's century epitomised the new complete Ponting. At Sydney in January, and at Johannesburg two weeks ago, he demonstrated the brutal shot-strewn side of his game, but this was a grafting, grinding affair, reminiscent of his none-shall-pass 156 against England at Old Trafford last summer. As captain of a side that is in danger of slipping from the heights he helped scale, Ponting is keenly aware the importance of every innings, every Test.

This was a slippery snake of a pitch, on which the newly-restored Pollock bowled supremely and Makhaya Ntini with a glint of danger in every spell, but he rode his luck and took his blows, and built Australia towards yet another position of authority. Their late collapse of 3 for 21 merely underlined that his caution had not been without reason.

Ponting has not once attempted to hide the true focus of his ambitions. He wants to be remembered as the man who won back the Ashes for Australia, and admitted as much to BBC Test Match Special only this week. He knows the best means to this end is through his sheer weight of runs, and the establishment of an aura that no side can dare to ignore.

South Africa are feeling the pinch in this match already, with dropped catches and missed tricks fuelling the habitual anxieties that they bring onto the field of play whenever Australia are in town. Ntini's late and lethal intercessions, culminating in that brutal bouncer that squashed Andrew Symonds' lip, have redressed the balance slightly, but from hereon in, it is a question of desire. Ponting as a tactician has been taken to task in the past, but for the umpteenth time in a year of awakening, he has shown how firmly his gaze is fixed on victory.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo