Peter English is former Australasia editor of ESPNcricinfo
In the end, as with all drawn-out terminal declines, the end comes as a relief. Ricky Ponting, unquestionably Australia's second-best batsman, will not be in palliative care for much longer. A pensioner of the modern game, previously delirious for a reprieve, he is reluctantly reaching for the off switch.
With age comes the ability for spectators to follow a player over an entire career, providing perspective rather than judgments of childlike devotion. Through Ponting's 17 years there have been periods of awe, discomfort, deep admiration and, sadly, for the past couple of years, sympathy. Watching him and knowing that, barring gifts presented by India, the conclusion would provide short-term tarnish to a cricketer with only a handful of equals.
So long has Ponting been involved that he carries no dominant image. Instead his is a life best viewed through a kaleidoscope, a pattern of sparkling segments mixed with light and dark reflections. He has been worshipped for unprecedented deeds, and forced to stare deeply into mirrors.
The flipside to an unruffled 96 on Test debut at the WACA was a dressing-room implosion that shocked senior team-mates. Then 20, Ponting had only been schooled in cricket. Important life lessons, like knowing how to tailor a goatee, were still to be learned. It took a not-so-sweet transvestite to help end The Ricky Horror Picture Show of his adolescence. An image of a dazed and bruised Ponting outside a Sydney nightclub - and the subsequent playing ban - led to a life with more maturity, consistency and control.
Toughened by the then mandatory early-career sackings from the Test team, he recovered from a tour of India in 2001 that could have ruined him, turning into the most assured batsman of his generation. The venues on his list of Test centuries read like a Phileas Fogg adventure: Sharjah, Colombo, Fatullah, Bangalore, Durban, Leeds, Bridgetown, Georgetown, Cape Town, and old Sydney Town.
At their best, Brian Lara undoubtedly possessed more dazzle and flourish, and Sachin Tendulkar swung a broader blade alongside greater single-minded desire. But Ponting was technically smoother and never seemed to hit the ball hard. His drives through the offside were mere pushes, his pulls found the boundary with a swift swivel of his tiny body. Going back on tiptoes to aim short balls forward of point, his power appeared to come solely from gravity pulling at his bat. In reality his forearms bulged and his handshake was as firm as his stare.
Until his muddled haze since the 2010-11 Ashes, Ponting had attained refinement as a man and batsman. Of course, there were still times when his inner Mowbray mongrel required muzzling, usually under extreme pressure in the biggest contests. However, after the damaging India series at home in 2007-08, he evolved again to become a leader and statesman, a captain who team-mates and supporters could adore.
Ponting even became gracious in defeat, something he rarely had to bother with until Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne retired. Having entered the Test side shortly after it toppled West Indies in 1995, he had to wait until 2009 for it to slip suddenly from the summit. Instead of creeping away, he stayed on determinedly, clinging to the hope of a return to the peak. Fittingly, if he wins his last Test against South Africa over the next week, that goal will be conquered too.
Through the latter stages of his captaincy and overall career, he was confident enough to answer any question thoughtfully and honestly. Except the one to himself about his own form. The Ponting of earlier eras might have slipped off the field, but he never slid as uncertainly at the crease as when bowled by Jacques Kallis in the first innings in Adelaide. Whatever happens at the WACA, the fall is already the saddest sight of the summer. It should not have come to this.
For Ponting has been truly a batsman through the ages, from golden boy to gold watch. Like those treasured-yet-doddery elderly relatives, think not of Ponting as the batsman of the last couple of years - and particularly the past fortnight. He isn't the grandparent with the fading memory and absence of skills. Remember that for almost a decade Ponting was the best batsman in the world's best team. The strokeplayer who drove and pulled and strode with the surest of feet.