South Africa v Australia, 2nd Test, Johannesburg, 4th day November 20, 2011

Can Ponting write his own Waugh story?

Ricky Ponting was under immense pressure on the fourth day in Johannesburg. His response was a sight to behold

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2011, 13:11 GMT

    I don't know that too may Australians with any knowledge of the game would select Ponting as the best after Bradman. There have been players such as Trumper, Ponsford, Harvey and even Hayden. He has gone- he may survive a few more tests but his career is as good as over.

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2011, 12:38 GMT

    Pontin is the last of the Waugh era team. Whilst he's been a terrifc run machine for a No 3 batsmen. I've always regarded him as a bit of a flat track bully where he excels on pitches which are true and hard that play to his attacking strengths. He has a woeful record against India showing his vulnerability against spin.

    He benefitted from being a in a powerful team it has to be said. Geoff Boycott thought Greg Chappell was a better batsman than Ponting and you have to agree given Chappell averaged over 50 and had to contend with the West Indies quartet for many years.

    The problem Australia have is traditionally when a captain stands down they expect them to retire from test cricket. Given Aussies cricket current state they can't enforce it. However Ponting needs to make up his mind before they force it upon him

  • Vinod on November 21, 2011, 12:09 GMT

    Out for 62. Out of the team? We'll see.

  • Rohit on November 21, 2011, 12:02 GMT

    There - nothing of that sort happened - the guy with more use for his tongue than bat walks out miserably as Aussies, yes the oh we're so mighty...go on the defensive!! Serves the man absolutely right, he deserves nothng but ignomity!

  • Damien on November 21, 2011, 9:11 GMT

    @ Sreekantapuram Srinivas Rao, Ricky Ponting is clearly Australia best batsman after Bradman, yes. AND he's better than you're obviously giving him credit for. Tendulkar is the best batsman I have seen in the 30 years I've been watching Test cricket, just in front of Ponting and Lara. Only after that trio, does it becomes debatable.

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2011, 9:05 GMT

    He has talent and he is determined, that much is certain, but he is an arrogant little man and he needs to be brought down to size. I personally cannot think of anyone better to perform this task than the Protea bowlers, It doesn't matter much to me which one or if it will be a little bit of all four.

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2011, 8:43 GMT

    Stop judging about punter's career plssss, we r nt worth to do so, scoring fifty in such a hugeeeee pressureeee is pricelessss, and superb fielding abilities at his age is superb. Love uuuuuuuuuuuu Punter alwayssssssssssssss.........!

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2011, 8:10 GMT

    legend were born to do sumtning special n no he iz one of them,,,,he can eazily serve two more yrs for australia luv to watch him facing zak in boxing day test,,,,,,cumon punter u can do mak it ur memorable match winning hundred best of luck......................

  • Dummy4 on November 21, 2011, 8:07 GMT

    Ponting is great and classy and deserves a farewell on his terms. Dropping him and even thinking about it is a heinous crime. But so say that he is the best batsman after Bradman is preposterous. Yes for Aussies, he is the best after Bradman. What about Lara Sachin Viv Sehwag Dravid Sanga mahela Kallis Gavaskar Miandad etc Some of them are far superior to Ponting and he doesnot deserve a comparision. When the Aussies say that he is the next best batsman, why questions are raised about his position. You cannot treat a great player shabbily.

  • Srinivasan on November 21, 2011, 7:56 GMT

    I have a feeling that Australia would get bowled out before lunch losing by 110 runs or so.

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