THE cricket gods are nothing if not impish. The first and last balls of Ricky Ponting's imperial Test cricket career were both bowled by spinners, both at the WACA Ground, and he thick-edged them both. The first eluded slip and skittered away for four. The last sped into the cupped hands of South Africa's Jacques Kallis, one of Ponting's few peers in the modern game.
The nascent roar on the lips of the crowd turned into an anguished howl, doubtlessly matching Ponting's at himself.
The South Africans ran to Ponting to shake his hand, and one even removed his cap, as if in the presence of a holy relic. At Ponting's entrance, a telling too few minutes beforehand, South Africa had formed a guard of honour, and captain Graeme Smith had shaken his hand.
Some part of Ponting, the flinty competitor, would have silently protested these felicitations, for he was never a cricketer who asked for indulgence, and besides, the awful truth was that South Africa in both these moments could afford to be lavish in its graces. But the gestures were offered humbly, and Ponting reciprocated them, and cricket was nobler for it.
Then the crowd rose to him for a second time, too, and all, including Ponting, understood that this was a rare moment of stopped time in which an individual could be allowed to sit above the game. Ponting raised his bat and hands to acknowledge the acclaim, and briefly, he appeared content. But as the camera tracked him into the changeroom, he was for one last time a heavy-hearted batsman, alone, brooding on a failure, and on a match about to be lost. The game always wins.
In 1995, 20-year-old Ponting also had his path strewn with palm fronds, by a battered Sri Lankan attack. Australia was 3/422, on top in the match and on top of the world. That first ball was delivered by Muttiah Muralitharan, who was just three years into what became a contentious and record-breaking career. Four hours later, Ponting was erroneously given out for 96, but as batting partner Mark Waugh remarked: ''I think he'll make a lot of 100s before he's finished in Test cricket.''
And he did, more than any other Australian, and more runs than all in Test history except Sachin Tendulkar, nearly all of them elegantly. He became a batsman to sit with Neil Harvey, Greg Chappell and Allan Border in the post-Bradman Australian pantheon. But for the past three years, save for what was in every way an Indian summer last year, he has been in decline. Truth be told, and acknowledging that these judgments are agonising to make, by half a season he outstayed his welcome. Twilight is notoriously indistinct.
Australia is no longer No. 1, and when Ponting entered yesterday was 2/81, fancifully chasing 632. This was a job beyond even Superman. Still, Ponting would have imagined for himself one last heroic hundred, and for his team to escape. He pulled one four from Morne Morkel and drove another from Dale Steyn, courtesy of a misfield. Both were classic Ponting, but in the end proved only what he secretly knew, that he could no longer piece these sublime parts into a substantial whole. His last shot was a mortal's carve at a plain spinner. It showed there has to be a full stop, somewhere. Ponting will not be remembered by his first or last balls but by the 22,780 in between.
How charmed and blessed we have been to see them.