Can Ponting write his own Waugh story?
Steve Waugh used his 156th Test to buy himself another year of cricket with an Ashes century that still lives on in the minds of Australian fans. Allan Border bowed out of the game in his 156th match in the baggy green, in South Africa. Is Ricky Ponting to follow Waugh or Border? With one day remaining of his 156th Test, he was poised halfway between the two fates.
As Ponting walked off the Wanderers on the fourth afternoon, the light was dimming on the ground, reminiscent of when Waugh crunched Richard Dawson through extra cover for four to reach a career-saving hundred. Back in Australia, where it was 2am in the eastern states, fans could see a glimmer of hope. Before this day, it seemed unlikely they would see Ponting's faded cap, the rolled-up sleeves and steely stare again in a Test match at home.
He finished unbeaten on 54, his first Test half-century since the opening match of last year's Ashes. Should he go on to score a match-winning hundred, it would be a monumental effort, considering he has not reached triple-figures in a Test in nearly two years, and that no team has chased such a big total - 310 - to win a Wanderers Test. By stumps, Australia were 168 from their goal.
If he gets Australia home and then chooses to retire, it could hardly be more of a fairytale ending. But Ponting is unlikely to feel disposed to walk away from the game if he thinks he has more to offer. And while the selectors would like to blood young batsmen during the series against New Zealand, which starts at the Gabba on December 1, the matter is now clouded due to the injuries to Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh.
Marsh is at home with a back injury and is considered by his state coach Mickey Arthur "a long shot" to play in Western Australia's Sheffield Shield match against New South Wales this week. And Watson, who strained his hamstring during this Test, has conceded that he is no certainty to be fit for the Brisbane Test.
Should they both miss selection, Usman Khawaja would hold his place and David Warner would have a strong chance of making his debut. The selectors may decide that including another new batsman might be tipping the balance too far in the regeneration direction. That, combined with Ponting's classy half-century in Johannesburg, could be his career lifeline.
When he walked to the crease, the pressure could hardly have been greater. Ponting's last two Test innings read 0, 0. Another zero and he'd have produced the Australian emergency phone number. And John Inverarity's finger would be poised on the dial.
The score was 19 for 2. Ponting jogged out to intense boos from the South African fans, played a few practice drives and made his way to the pitch. He patted down the surface, stretched his hamstrings and took his time getting ready. There was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing to indicate he felt any more burden than normal.
After a quick chat with Khawaja, his partner and one of his prospective long-term replacements, he took guard, counted the fielders, and took strike. Vernon Philander ran in. Ponting was ready. Would this be the first ball of the rest of his life? No. He left it alone, extravagantly and expertly, and Australian fans breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Ponting was off the mark from his tenth ball, a push through cover off Dale Steyn. Some classic Ponting strokes followed, a muscular pull for four off Morne Morkel, a back-foot drive to the boundary against Steyn. A straight-driven four, back past the stumps off Steyn, was especially encouraging.
There were challenges. Morkel whizzed one past the edge of the bat, a pearl that bounced and seamed away. Ponting responded next ball with a judicious leave. When he brought up his half-century, he raised the bat. It was understated. He knew that for all his wonderful innings over the years, he had been given leniency lately. Making runs is his job.
Meanwhile, the man at the other end showed Australia's top order will be in good hands whenever Ponting leaves. Khawaja walked to the crease in the first over of the innings, after Watson shouldered arms and lost his off stump. The momentum was all with South Africa. Khawaja responded with two majestic drives for four, through cover and mid-on, from his first three deliveries.
In his first three Tests, Khawaja had made starts and shown promise. This innings was a step in the right direction. He helped ease the pressure on Ponting with his own fine strokeplay, and moved to his first Test half-century from his 95th delivery. Khawaja fell late in the afternoon for 65, failing to pick Imran Tahir's googly, but his was a classy, confidence-boosting innings.
Khawaja's fourth Test has been encouraging. Now all that remains to be seen is how Ponting's 156th will be remembered.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo