Ricky Ponting has overcome adversity, scrutiny and inner demons to become cricket's highest-ranked batsman © Getty Images

Ricky Ponting is like a child soapie actor who grew up with the world watching. He has been a fixture of Australian summer lounge rooms for so long that his walk towards cricketing middle age has come as a surprise. On Monday he plays his 100th Test as a thoughtful and thinning-haired 31-year-old, but it's hard to forget him as the prodigy with the post-pubescent goatee and rasping pull shot.

A small circle of scalp is visible when he regularly removes his helmet to celebrate a century and it is a significant reminder he is no longer the cheeky Tasmanian youth who spoke as quickly as his favourite greyhounds ran. As a 17-year-old Peter Roebuck predicted Ponting "may be just the cricketer Tasmania and Australia needs". He has gone further than that, scoring more runs than any of the many wild guesses during his celebrated development.

With his 117 at the MCG, Ponting joined Garry Sobers on 26 Test centuries in six more matches. Sobers is an immortal of the game - his bowling added to his prestige - but Ponting is still working on his modern-day greatness. Statistically, he is almost Sobers' equal as a batsman - he has scored 7990 runs at 56.26 to Sir Garry's 8032 at 57.78, 32 half-centuries to Sobers' 30 and both posted five 90s - and his captaincy, which began to carry positive marks of individualism during the derailed Ashes series, has emerged from Steve Waugh's legacy.

Ponting enters the series-decider against South Africa ranked the game's No. 1, but he has suffered severe public growing pains in the ride from the 20-year-old who danced down the pitch to his first ball in Tests to the team's captain. Shane Warne once complained his life was a soap opera and his current captain understands the demands on a smaller scale. While Warne's show could be titled The Bowled and the Beautiful, Ponting sensibly escaped his Young and the Restless phase.

"If you do not have a temper and aggression at my age, then when would you have it?" he said early in his career. "I am aware that I have to control it, whether or not I ever become Australian captain. I have committed a few mistakes, but I have come out of it a lot wiser."

The biggest transgression made by Ponting, who was reprimanded on a tour of India for his behaviour, came during a boozy post-match celebration in 1998-99 when he was photographed drunk, dazed and confused with a very black eye outside Sydney's infamous Bourbon and Beefsteak hotel. Then 24, he was fined, suspended for three one-day matches and admitted publicly to a drinking problem. On the field the first half of his career was upset by being dropped and shuffled around a world-beating batting order, which is why he is so qualified to advise Michael Clarke, the current wunderkind.



On his best behaviour when at the crease, Ponting has become a No.3 for the world to admire © Getty Images

Ponting's recovery from uncertain youth to assured leader was made gradually and, ultimately, impressively. Only Duncan Fletcher has ruffled him seriously since he took over the one-day captaincy from Steve Waugh in 2002 and the Test reins two years later. He has married an intelligent law graduate, missed a Test to attend a family funeral and unofficially lectured his players on maintaining discipline.

On his best behaviour when at the crease, Ponting has become a No. 3 for the world to admire. Second behind Don Bradman in Australia's batting-average table for players with more than 20 Test innings, Ponting joins the game's most celebrated first drop as the only other man to raise three double-centuries in a calendar year.

Ponting does not pore over his statistics and reckons he couldn't guess within 500 runs of how many he owns, but for all his magnificent records he is a victim of his efficiency. Whether flicking a four through midwicket to get off the mark or swivelling to pull the world's fastest bowlers, he is such a regular and high-class performer that he needs to produce extraordinary deeds to stand out among his personal efforts and those of his dominating squad. People expect him to make important contributions and set up massive first-innings totals. Unlike in his younger days, he rarely lets them down.

In 2005 he scored 1544 runs, second behind only Viv Richards for a calendar year, and played the greatest innings of his career at Old Trafford. Facing the prospect of a 2-1 deficit, he batted through all but the final four overs of the last day as his 156 set-up a dramatic draw. It was a momentous innings, his graduation as captain, but he would soon be tattooed as the first Australian since Allan Border to lose the Ashes.

The scrutiny continued on his return from England. Instead of stuttering under the burden he has developed and controlled the side this summer despite Graeme Smith's agitating. As he walks on to the SCG as the ninth Australian with 100 Test appearances he will definitely be leading his team. He also deserves recognition for replacing a problem child with a mature man and a magnificent batsman.

Peter English is the Australasian editor of Cricinfo