This week, our Round the World column assesses Ricky Ponting's prospects as he embarks on his first series as Test captain
Ricky Ponting: into uncharted territory
Most twenty-something males who end up spending Valentine's night with the lads might regard themselves as a bit of a failure. Not Ricky Ponting. On Saturday, Australia fly out to Sri Lanka for their first series with Ponting in sole, complete charge of the team. It is the natural culmination of a 12-month love-in that is almost without precedent.
By any standards, Ponting has had an extraordinary year. He led Australia to a merciless World Cup victory; he kept a straight face as his bowling attack grew increasingly ridiculous mullets, and in between whiles he battered century after century in the Test side.
But if anything, the ante has now been upped. The Sri Lanka tour is the beginning of a momentous 18 months for Australia, and particularly Ponting; it is a time when they can break territory that was beyond even Steve Waugh - or it could be a time when the walls start tumbling down.
For most Australians, the final frontier is away in India - where they have not won since 1969-70 - later in the year. But Sri Lanka away is arguably the greater challenge. They have won 11 and lost none of their last 15 Tests at home. And in 41 Tests since their all-empowering World Cup win in 1996, that record reads: won 21, lost 7.
Even more imposingly, Sri Lanka have won 45 out of 55 one-day internationals in Sri Lanka in that time - a win-ratio of 81%. Put that against Australia's ODI win-ratio under Ponting (84%) and something clearly has to give.
After that Australia have Zimbabwe away - probably - and Sri Lanka at home, which should both be walkovers. Sri Lanka haven't won a Test outside the subcontinent this century; they've never won one in Australia. But then come more pitfalls. Only the most blinkered would currently claim that India are the best side in the world, but if they beat Australia at home that clamour will become a din.
Then there is the small matter of Ponting's first Ashes series as captain: it remains unthinkable, but the Ashes have to return to England some day. Like Brian Lara, Ponting could become the all-time great who presides over the decline and fall of an empire.
So far, Ponting has made captaincy look like the easiest thing in the world. He has flicked the switch, stood back ten yards and enjoyed the show. It has, as a consequence, been hard to assess what type of captain he is. We have not yet seen a trademark manoeuvre, like Nasser Hussain's offor leg-theory, or Stephen Fleming's eccentric bowling changes. But then, we haven't yet needed to.
What we do know is that Ponting can lead by example. His stunning 140 not out in the World Cup final was one of the great captain's innings, even if it was antithetical to the rugged, resourceful archetype. But then Ponting seems almost antithetical to the notion of the classic, cold-eyed captain.
The steel is there, but it is largely hidden by the exterior of the everyday bloke. Somewhere between the old-school gun-slinging of Waugh and Graeme Smith and the 21st-century openness of Michael Vaughan and Fleming comes Ponting, a new-age larrikin and a man very much of his time.
The precedent of Vaughan, the outstanding batsman of the previous Australian summer, is an obvious reference point. Vaughan and Ponting, as well as being the two best swivel-pullers in world cricket, possess the same easy grace in the middle.
But just as Vaughan found captaincy compromised his relentless run-scoring, so might Ponting. He has improved on his career average since assuming the ODI captaincy, but only just, and there have been occasions on which his freedom has seemed constrained.
By contrast, and in complete contravention of the mores of international cricket, it's been Test matches in which Ponting has been letting his hair down - since becoming Steve Waugh's heir apparent two years ago, Ponting has averaged 85. It has all come so wonderfully easily; almost too much so. You suspect it won't come quite as easily ever again.
Rob Smyth is a freelance writer based in London.