In his final days as a Test cricketer, Ricky Ponting's greatness is undisputed. But it is not his ability but rather his character, forged in the heat of the Australian captaincy, which has put him among the game's elite.

As an education of character, there are fewer sterner tests than leading the highest profile national sports team in a sports mad nation.

But given the extraordinary transformations under its influence of both Ponting and Michael Clarke from precocious and arrogant youngsters into the best batsmen of their generation, the captaincy may also be the greatest educator in Australian sport.

On Thursday, Clarke and Ponting spoke of the latter's retirement with intelligence and poignancy. It was the younger of the two, Clarke, who found the emotion of the moment briefly too much, and given the path that Ponting had blazed for him, it is understandable.

The last Australian captain to cry at a press conference has been lambasted about it for the better part of 30 years, but Clarke needn't worry about following Kim Hughes' path. Back-to-back double tons have put a few credits in the bank with the Australian public.

Ponting has had plenty of time to consider the end, so it was not surprising that he handled it well, knowing it was his time.

For a kid who's impetuousness on and off the field dogged his early development as a Test cricketer, he has become remarkably circumspect and pragmatic in his 30s.

So much so, that there is an argument to say that it is that change of attitude, more than a slowness of reflex, which has seen his Test average slide from 59 to 52 in the past six years.

That stat cannot take the gloss off what he achieved as a batsman over a 168 Test career - a length which matches exactly the longevity of his predecessor Steve Waugh.

Ponting is a fine example that while one doesn't have to be a great man to be a captain, captaincy can make a man great.

He was not always destined for the role. At the start of 2002, just two years before Waugh would step down, Ponting averaged 43.78 and was no lock to stay in the Test team.

In the next two years he made 11 centuries from 22 Tests at an extraordinary average of 85.56 to announce himself as the best batsman in the world. That included three double centuries in 2003. He assumed the Australian captaincy with an enormous amount of momentum.

The legacy of Ponting's Test captaincy, in particular that Ashes defeat in 2005, is a subject of much debate, but there is no doubt his period in charge was the making of him.

Perhaps Waugh's departure gave him an appreciation of living in the moment he was in and the change in his character was remarkable. His brashness ironed out into assuredness, while his hostility towards critics transformed into determination to prove them wrong.

The pugnacious little Tasmanian famous for brawling in Kings Cross nightspots had turned his smirk into a smile which he shared with everyone and, combined with his wonderful talent and determination to play aggressive yet fair cricket, he won almost everyone over.

There is no doubt Michael Clarke went to school on the Ponting transformation.

There are cynics who point to the public break-up with model Lara Bingle as a defining moment in Clarke's career, with his average 50 before the break-up and at 52 today, but it was the opportunity afforded to him by Ponting leaving the captaincy which has proved Clarke's making.

Since taking the role full-time in March last year, Clarke has scored 1882 runs at a stunning 75.28 in 16 Tests.

But perhaps more significantly, he has shrugged off the image of the 'Pup', that little so and so from Sydney's west with tattoos and earrings, and become a real leader on and off the pitch. He speaks like a man who belongs in that role.

It's amazing what a bit of responsibility can do for a man. Just ask Ricky Ponting (while you can).


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