I don't see a finish line yet - Ponting
During his worst slump, Greg Chappell famously said he wasn't batting badly, he was just getting out. Ricky Ponting has taken that sentiment to a new level, declaring himself to be batting the best he has in two years. He just doesn't have the scores to show for it.
Ponting enters the first Test in Cape Town under pressure. Last time he was preparing for a Newlands Test, in early 2009, he was the captain, his side had already won the series and retained the No. 1 Test ranking, and he had made three Test centuries in the previous 12 months.
Now Ponting has given up the leadership, has been demoted to No. 4, and he has one international hundred in his past 53 innings. That century came in the World Cup quarter-final loss to India; he hasn't scored a Test ton since his 209 in Hobart nearly two years ago, when Mohammad Amir dropped a sitter off Ponting before he had scored.
No batsman can afford this kind of trough, least of all a man who turns 37 next month. Few players have returned from lean periods at that age. The selection panel is being rebuilt from the ground up and John Inverarity's new group might wonder about the wisdom of the mid-year decision to keep Ponting but axe Simon Katich.
Katich, Ponting and Michael Hussey were all in the 35-plus age bracket and a succession plan was required. Hussey was in the best form of the three, Ponting had earned some latitude, and Phillip Hughes was ready to step into Katich's role. Now Usman Khawaja is hovering on the sidelines. But if he's expecting Ponting to walk away, he could be waiting for some time.
This summer's home series against India seems the logical occasion for a Ponting farewell, but he has still not ruled out trying for the 2013 Ashes. To reach that goal he would need to regain his best form. A murderous, flat pull for six off the young fast bowler Marchant de Lange in last week's tour match was a hint of such form, but was offset by a lacklustre clip down mid-on's throat off Robin Peterson's spin.
"I honestly don't think I'm far away [from my best]," Ponting said in the lead-up to the Newlands Test. "I had probably a couple of the best training sessions I've had down in Potch. I spent day two in the nets against our bowlers and that was the best I've batted in and out of games for a couple of years.
"At the end of the day, we're judged on our performances in the middle and how many runs we score and I probably let a couple of good opportunities slip in Sri Lanka. Forty-odd in the first Test and another 40 in the first innings of the second Test, if you convert those scores and they become big scores, you feel better about yourself but you get a few people off your back as well."
The trouble for Ponting is that he isn't converting those starts, while younger men are. The new No. 3, Shaun Marsh, scored a century on debut against Sri Lanka and 81 in his second Test, as well as a pair of half-centuries in the warm-up game in Potchefstroom. Hughes made 126 in his last Test innings.
The selectors will see those returns and wonder what other fresh blood could be introduced into Michael Clarke's side. There needs to be a Ricky Ponting succession plan, but it's not something the man himself is considering.
"I don't see a finish line yet and I think it's really important for me that I don't look at it that way," Ponting said. "Things haven't been as I would have liked for the last 12 months. I haven't scored a Test hundred in that period of time. I want to make sure that I'm getting back to playing somewhere near my best cricket. If I can do that then who knows, the Ashes mightn't be out of the question. My destiny lies in my hands, really. I'm enjoying the game and the challenge as much as ever."
If he fails to have an impact in these two Tests, that might change. He may be batting well in the nets, but runs on the board are all that matters. And Ponting's are gradually running out.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo