By Scott Heinrich
Ricky Ponting's whirlwind finish to the year should leave nobody in doubt of his place among cricket's all-time great batsmen.
A VERY GOOD YEAR
Test runs: 1,503
Ave: 100.2; Highest score: 257
100s: 6; 50s: 4
Other: World Cup-winning captain and scored 140 not out in final; Appointed next Test captain of Australia
Thanks to his second double century in successive Tests, Australia are on top at the MCG and back in the series against India.
In a year dominated very much by the willow, competition for the right to be called batsman of 2003 was fierce.
The honour does not go to Matthew Hayden, though in most years a record Test score of 380 among a haul of 1,259 would be enough.
Nor does it go to South Africa skipper and England-tormentor Graeme Smith, nor Brian Lara, despite a sixth career double ton in Johannesburg recently taking his tally beyond 1,300.
No, 2003 belonged to Ponting, who capped his best year by some distance with a career-high 257 in Melbourne, and finished with an Australian record haul of Test runs - 1,503.
It ranks as the third-highest of all-time, but even more impressive is his batting average of 100.2 - the most devastating Test cricket has seen since the West Indies' Sir Viv Richards' benchmark of 90 in 1976.
Australia's next Test captain also produced the one-day innings of the year on the biggest stage of all in the World Cup final.
He paced his unbeaten 140 against India with insidious intent, unleashing the most lethal array of pull shots as the death approached.
Many rate Ponting's knock in the World Cup final as the best ever
But it is about far more than runs, for 2003 was when the 29-year-old larrikin from Tasmania finally came of age.
Ponting's ability has never been in question, but for much of his eight-year career consistency eluded him. Towering peaks were too often followed by sinking troughs.
He put it down to starting his career out of position at number six, but a technical deficiency against spin and habitual impetuosity early in his innings were as much to blame.
And then there were matters off the field: drinking sprees and altercations in two nightclubs in 1998 led to counselling and obvious doubts over his leadership potential.
His lowest point came in India in 2001, where he was a walking wicket against spinner Harbhajan Singh. Like a rabbit dazzled by headlights, Ponting scored 17 runs in five innings.
It had a profound effect, and Ponting was a damaged, edgy batsman when he travelled to England for the Ashes that year.
Comfortable against pace, Ponting petulantly tried to fight his way out of the slump. He paid the price, falling cheaply to Darren Gough four times on the bounce.
He finally broke the shackles with a ton at Headingley, but if anything the knock just returned Ponting to where he was before: a great, but flawed talent.
More big scores followed, but so did the misses - until two landmark events changed his life.
Taking over the one-day captaincy from Steve Waugh early in 2002 was followed by his wedding to law student Rianna Cantor.
Both were like injections of responsibility, Ponting admitting recently that his marriage has given him a new outlook on cricket and life.
"I've grown into myself a little bit, I've matured a lot, I respect my role in cricket a lot more than what I once did," he said.
Batsmen will always go through poor patches, but what is noticeable about Ponting these days is his approach both on and off the field.
The awesome strokeplay is still very much evident, but he is calm at the crease and wise enough now to know that he can get himself out just as easily as the opposition can.
When unveiled as Waugh's Test successor last month, he spoke of lessons learned and more learning to be done.
His wonderfully grown-up innings in Melbourne encapsulates the new Ponting and applied the polish on 12 months of incredible achievement.
Ponting the Test captain will make fascinating viewing, but the signs are good that the one-time delinquent is ready to take the biggest transition in cricket in his stride.