New Delhi: The man so many love to hate refuses to go away. That is potentially bad news for India.
Two Tests ago, Ricky Ponting was a marked man. Going into the second and final Test against South Africa in Cape Town - following an embarrassing loss in Johanneburg - Ponting had gone 25 innings without a century while averaging under 30. He hadn't scored a Test fifty for 21 innings, and calls for his exit from the Australia side had increased after he twice walked across his stumps and was lbw in the Newlands Tests. At 32, he appeared a man battling time and poor form.
After a duck in the first innings - lbw again - the critics sharpened their knives and prepared to write Ponting’s obituary. Even a polished 62 in Australia's successful chase of 310 was dubbed his final Test innings by some.
The new selection panel, headed by John Inverarity, included Ponting in the squad for two Tests against New Zealand at home, no doubt because of injuries to Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh, the man who replaced Ponting from the No. 3 spot after 113 Tests.
Under pressure to perform, Ponting - still at No. 4 - battled his way to an unbeaten 67 on the first day of the ongoing Gabba Test against New Zealand, helping Australia recover from 25 for 2 and 91 for 3. It wasn't a fluent innings, for he was given a life before he opened his account and lived through three more close calls in his 123-ball stay. Those 123 balls could be immensely significant in Ponting extending his career, and every ball he faces onwards from here on day two a decider of how long he plays for Australia.
Australia's selectors have a reputation of getting rid of players they view as being past their expiry date - think Mark Waugh, Michael Slater - and Ponting faces a similar ignominy. Steve Waugh had it in him to use what had been dubbed his final opportunity to buy himself another year of cricket. His Ashes century in Sydney in 2003 - that of last-ball-of-the-day boundary of Richard Dawson to level with Don Bradman on 29 centuries - and Ponting now faces a similar scenario.
He does not appear one to bow out on anyone else's terms. That is not the Ponting we know. This is a man who has scored centuries of outstanding class across the world, and who has battled his inner demons to resurrect himself into a world-beater, one of the leading batsmen of his era, and of all time.
With four Tests against India, it is foreseeable that Ponting, should be included, uses the occasion to once again make an emphatic statement. He has often preserved his best for this opposition though his record against them in India is poor by his high standard. In 11 Tests against India at home, though, Ponting has tallied 1349 runs at 79.35, with five centuries including back-to-back doubles in 2003. Who can forget his 141 at Sydney in 1999, 242 at Adelaide or 257 in Melbourne?
India's Test bowling attack comprises Ishant Sharma, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin. Zaheer Khan's fitness remains to be seen and a replacement for Praveen Kumar has yet to be named. Of those five bowlers, only Ishant and Ojha have bowled to Ponting in Tests.
Famously, Ishant made a name for himself with a memorable Saturday-morning spell to Ponting. Fleetingly, it brought back memories of Andrew Flintoff doing the same to Ponting at Edgbaston in 2005, but that happened so quickly. In Perth, this was a torture that refused to let up. On a worn pitch, Ishant ran in - part Flintoff, part Brett Lee, part Courtney Walsh - and relentlessly hammered away at Ponting. In seven subsequent Tests, Ishant got Ponting's four more times.
Comparatively, Ojha has bowled to Ponting in just two Tests in India - conceding 70 runs off 177 balls bowled to him - and has yet to dismiss him. Ashwin, Yadav and Aaron have yet to play a Test in Australia.
The next two matches against New Zealand will be fascinating to watch, because they could decide whether Ponting extends his glorious career beyond 158 Test caps. If he does, and does so with the hunger of old, India could be in for some trouble.