Irrespective of the result of the Test series against the Proteas starting on Wednesday, Ricky Ponting will arguably be remembered for being the captain of one of the greatest cricket teams in history.
There is no disputing Australia's record with Ponting at the helm ? 50 matches in charge, winning 35, drawing 9 and losing 6. That is simply a stunning record as captain and one not likely to be bettered soon.
However, in my opinion, this phenomenal record is more an indication of the strength of the team Ponting inherited from Steve Waugh back in 2004.
In no way am I critical of Ponting as a player ? he will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the all-time greats when he retires and will no doubt break many records with the bat before he calls time on his stellar career. What I am saying is that this is what he should be remembered for when he retires and not his skills as a captain.
I do believe, however, that South African captain Graeme Smith has the opportunity to become one of the great captains of the game. Smith has often been criticised for his inability to think 'out of the box' when things are not going well on field, but no one can question his ability to lead from the front.
The match-winning 154* not out at Edgbaston ? possibly a career-defining innings for 'Biff' ? which secured South Africa's first series victory in England for 43 years is still fresh in the memory, but there has been others of the same ilk. The unbeaten 125 against New Zealand in Wellington which levelled the series springs to mind, and who can forget his back-to-back double tons in England in 2003?
Obviously Ponting has played several match-winning innings himself, like a man with 36 Test centuries should ? the 143* against SA in Sydney three years ago immediately springs to mind. But Ponting is a player that has done brilliantly despite being captain, not because of it.
A closer look at Ponting's record as captain reveals some interesting statistics.
As I have stated earlier, when Ponting took over the captaincy from Steve Waugh in 2004, the Australian team was already by far the best team in the world with a number of stars in the set-up. Other than Ponting himself, there was also Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilcrist, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn, Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Stuart MacGill.
McGrath and Gilchrist have retired as legends of the game, but they were never as important to Ricky Ponting's Australian XI as Warne was.
Australia were the dominant side in world cricket before Gilchrist (his predecessor Ian Healy was a fine player, too), and have done well enough when McGrath has not played ? a 3-0 whitewash against the Proteas in South Africa, Stuart Clark's debut series, springs to mind.
Warne, however, is simply irreplaceable and Ponting's record with him in the side is just phenomenal. 'Warney' played 34 Tests under Ponting of which the Australians won 27! There were five draws and just two losses, both of which came during England's Ashes victory in 2005.
Ponting's record as captain without Warne is far less impressive: played 16: won eight, lost four and drawn four ? a decent enough record without being spectacular.
Remarkably, up till this year, Warne had played in all 24 Tests between South Africa and Australia since our readmission to international cricket. Australia have won 19 of those and lost only twice (one of which was a dead rubber in South Africa and the other the famous Fanie de Villiers Test at the SCG).
Warne's record against South Africa incredibly mirrors Ponting's record as captain with him in the side exactly ? a 79% win percentage.
On the other hand, the Proteas team Smith inherited from Shaun Pollock in 2003 was significantly worse off than the Australian team of the time. The team had some top quality performers ? Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis and Makhaya Ntini to name a few, but also included the likes of Charl Willougby, Alan Dawson, Mornantau Hayward, Dewald Pretorius, all of whom were tried out and then discarded.
I mean no disrespect to the aforementioned quarter, but I think messers Pretorius and Willoughby will admit to not being in the same class as Lee and Gillespie, not to mention McGrath or Warne.
Despite the obvious lack of quality in the South African team (compared to the Australians at least), Smith has done reasonably well as captain. The big Capetonian has led the Proteas in 63 Tests of which they won 31, lost 17 and drawn 15 ? an almost identical record (as far as win/loss ratio goes at least) to that of Ponting without Warne in the side.
Smith's South African team is improving, however. Since the last series played between Australia and SA, the Proteas boast a fine record ? winning 17 from 25 Tests; including a run of eight series victories in nine attempts. The one non-series victory was on the tour to India earlier this year which ended in a 1-1 draw ? a series many feel we should have won against a side that recently smashed the Aussies.
So what is one to make of all this?
Basically, my point is this: Ricky Ponting's Australian side is one of the all-time great sides, but not because of 'Punter's prowess as a captain ? rather due to the brilliance of the individuals in the team, especially a certain blond leg-spinner. Since the retirement of Warne, the Australians seem far more human, while still being the best side around. A side in decline...
The South Africans under Graeme Smith, meanwhile, are a side on an upward curve. Even a victory Down Under might not make them the best side on the block ? as suggested by Ponting last week ? but such a victory will go a long way in enhancing the reputation of a South African skipper that already possesses an impressive resume.
What do you think? Is Barend clutching at straws or does his argument have some merit? Who would you want leading your team ? Smith or Ponting?