Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here
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In South Africa this time last year, Ricky Ponting's days as a Test batsman appeared to be rapidly dwindling. At 36, he was enduring the leanest patch of his long career, having not scored a Test century for nearly two years. Such slumps are usually terminal for batsmen in their late thirties. The chances of him making it all the way through the 2011-12 Australian summer appeared slim. The chances of him being part of the side for this year's home series against Graeme Smith's men seemed to be almost non-existent.
Fast forward 12 months and Ponting is not only part of the team, he is its form batsman. David Warner and Michael Hussey have had scant first-class preparation. Michael Clarke has had some starts for New South Wales without going on. Ed Cowan hasn't reached 50 in his four Sheffield Shield games this summer. Meanwhile, Ponting has piled up the runs for Tasmania and is on top of the Shield run tally with 355 at 118.33.
Most importantly, he has fixed a technical flaw that was undermining his entire game. On Melbourne Cup day last year, Ponting shuffled across his stumps in Potchefstroom and was lbw to Vernon Philander for 2. He went on to be dismissed cheaply in the same way in three of the four Test innings that followed, once by Philander and twice by Dale Steyn. It was a trigger movement that was threatening to end his career.
"It was technical. You don't go from playing the way I was playing to getting hit on the pad as often as I was without something being wrong," Ponting said in Brisbane on Tuesday. "The frustrating thing for me through that period was that I identified it really early in the series and I was training really hard and trying to rectify it and still getting out the same way. It just took a long time to break the habit that I was in and the cycle I was in.
"I'm doing things a little bit differently at training now, with the way that I train and prepare. Some of the drills that I'm working on have made me feel a lot better balanced at the crease and certainly not getting hit on the pad as much as I was 12 months ago. My pre-ball movements were a little bit earlier than what they normally were. I was trying to move early to give myself a little bit more time but it was actually having a detrimental effect. I was actually moving too early and locking off and not being able to move again after that."
Gradually, he worked out how to address the problem and the runs piled up during the home series against India in December and January, when he made 62, 60, 134, 7, 221 and 60 not out. He made more runs in that series than he had in his previous four series combined. Ponting has tried not to look back at that South African tour too often since then, but he concedes that things couldn't have gotten much worse.
"There's no doubt it was a lowlight," he said. "I was training really hard and not getting the results I was after. At that stage where I was batting we needed to be getting results if the team was going to win games. Whenever you fail it's not just about you, it's about feeling like you've let your team-mates and your mates down. It was a low moment.
"I batted my way back in the second innings of that last Test match over there and then started the series well here against New Zealand and things turned around in the summer. Pretty much from the end of that series in South Africa until now I've been a pretty consistent run scorer in all the games I've played. Some of the things I'm working on are starting to pay dividends."
Now, Ponting finds himself preparing to take on Steyn, Philander and Morne Morkel once again, this time at the Gabba, a venue that fast bowlers always enjoy. Steyn is the ICC's No.1-ranked Test bowler and Philander, who debuted in Cape Town during last year's series against Australia, has rocketed to No.2, while Morkel sits at No.9. Ponting said despite the class of South Africa's attack, Australia's experience at the Gabba would hold them in good stead.
"We know the ball swings around a little bit up here. All of our batsmen have played enough here to know how to combat it," he said. "They're all good bowlers and their records speak for themselves, especially over the last couple of years. Philander burst onto the scene last year.
"We've played a lot against Morkel over the years and had a reasonable record against him, us as a team, and Steyn is one of the best bowlers of the last four or five years. The thing about their attack is they're all different bowlers. They're all slightly different and that makes a good attack. There's not much opportunity for our batsmen to relax but that's what Test cricket is all about."