RICKY Ponting always talked like he made runs, in torrents. Then the runs dried up, and on Thursday so did the words, almost. First when addressing the team, then at a media conference a few hours later, Ponting had to force himself as he rarely did in his strokeplay.
But the import was plain: for one of Australia's very greatest batsmen, it would be over as soon as the Perth Test was. Ponting barely held back a flow of tears. Michael Clarke, his successor and protege, did not bother to try.
Three times in the past two years Ponting's cataract of runs had contracted to a trickle. The first time, coinciding with a heavy Ashes defeat, it was shell-shock and it led to renouncement of the captaincy. The second time, it was because of a technical kink, blinding him on leg stump. By sheer hard work, a motif in his career, he corrected it.
Ricky Ponting. Photo: Getty Images
This time, exemplified more by his second-innings dismissal in Adelaide than the first, it is because he is seeing the ball late. ''Played on'' is the symptom. There is no cure and no comeback, only a hope that the nation's adrenalin, telepathically infused, can obviate it one last time on Friday.
This much, Ponting said on Thursday, he had come to see clearly. Even on his own exacting terms, he could not have been better prepared for this series, and still the runs would not come. In Adelaide, he admitted to himself they never would again, not at the rate he wanted and Australia needed.
If Ponting did his decline harder than most, it was understandable. Effectively, he was giving up the job that he, uniquely in Australia's annals, was trained for from birth. As a child he would study the Mowbray first XI and try on their batting gloves. At 14, he had a bat contract and was almost picked for Tasmania. At 17, he was.
The life and times of Ricky Ponting
Ricky Ponting has built a reputation as one of the best batsmen ever. Photo: Vince Caligiuri
At 18, cricket academy coach Rod Marsh said he was the best teenage batsman he had seen, better even than Doug Walters. By then, blessedly, Australia had given up on ''next Bradmans''. At 20, he played for Australia. At all but 38, he still is.
But Ponting never took his privilege for granted. His work ethic is legendary. He has always been as lean as the greyhounds he once raced for a hobby. As a fieldsman, he had Jonty Rhodes' athleticism and Mark Taylor's hands.
He was not without blemish; which public figure is? He was sometimes immature off the field in his early years, and sometimes indecorous on it later. But his career average for good grace stands up. Unusually for one so long-lived, never to my knowledge did he divide the Australian dressing room, nor find himself unwelcome in another's.
Ricky Ponting pulls for four to bring up his double century in a Test match against India in Adelaide. Photo: Getty Images
None of this would matter if he was not, simply, Australia's supreme batsman in a supreme era, and with Neil Harvey and Greg Chappell one of the best three since Bradman (there, Pandora's box is open).
All great batsmen have their own styles. Ponting's was to pounce on the ball like a cat on a hapless mouse. So would he force through cover, or drive down the ground, or pull imperiously for four deliveries that looked to have not much wrong with them. In his pomp, he would do this for days at a time, as Clarke does now, tipping the scales in Test after Test.
Ponting asked yesterday that we stay the toasts while he negotiated one last Test, but for the best-of list, here's a starting point: back-to-back double centuries against India in 2003. In the fullness of time, it is this regal Ponting who will live on in the mind's eye, not the toiler of the last month, and justly so.
Born to cricket, Ponting loved everything about it: the net sessions, the touring life, the brotherhood, the talk, the joining and re-joining of battle. In this team, he is, as well as a batsman, mentor to Clarke, de facto coach to off-spinner Nathan Lyon, consultant to all the batsmen.
As he will miss them, so they will miss him, Clarke particularly. For one thing, almost certainly Clarke will have to move up to No.4, so robbing Peter. For another, he is on his own now. Though already a better intuitive captain than Ponting, still he defers to his predecessor. His sorrow yesterday was heartfelt.
Sportsmen say you know when your time has come, but not all do. To watch Ponting in the nets was to know that his satisfaction in hitting a cricket ball well has not dulled, nor his belief that he might hit it better yet. Briefly perhaps, this undying love blinded him.
But not many great sportspeople are sentimental in their time, because sentimentality tends to fog the mind. At the end, Ponting was clear-eyed. Asked if it had been tough to forsake a previously stated ambition to make one last Ashes tour next year, Ponting was again his old direct, unhesitating, peremptory self.
No, he said, because he knows now he is no longer good enough.