Ricky Ponting, with 28 Test centuries, is hot on the heels of India's Sachin Tendulkar (35 centuries) and West Indian Brian Lara (31 centuries). Going by his recent performances, especially against South Africa, the Australian appears poised to inch ahead. The race is truly on, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY

LIKE a juggernaut, he rolls on, crushing bowlers in his regal march. Imposing in stature, if not appearance, Ricky Ponting stands right at the top as the world's premier batsman. He is a rare captain with a penchant for playing match-winning knocks; a man with unmatched passion and love to conquer the opposition and the conditions in his quest to dominate world cricket.

Just observe his approach to the wicket. Ponting, 31, does not saunter like many others do. His gait is brisk and in fact, he is like a man in a tearing hurry. He simply cannot wait to take guard from the umpire. It all seems so congruous to his batting.

Ponting comes from Tasmania, the `other' Australia, which is known for storms that can bring wintry conditions at any time of the year. His batting provides the warmth to the Australian dressing room in the most excruciating situations. When most fail, Ponting revels.

Batsmanship is not about magic. Watching Ponting in action one is convinced that it is an art that has to be perfected through sheer courage, not to forget the desire to excel. This gutsy Aussie has always looked different from the crowd.

The `punter', as he is known to his mates, is adept at leaving his mark on venues and occasions. There is a method to his batting. It gathers momentum with time spent at the crease and the bowlers only suffer because he commands a fantastic range of shots. Ask the South Africans, who were demolished this summer by his versatile stroke play.

There is nothing tentative about Ponting's cricket, quite similar to Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, who believe in setting goals and raising their standards constantly. That Ponting continues to raise the bar adds to the intensity as the trio compete to grab the top slot, with Inzamam-ul-Haq not far behind.

Ponting's superior consistency is the high point of his batting. The last few seasons have seen him gather runs in a fury that only a few can match. Comparisons can be meaningless at times but Ponting has every reason to believe that his achievements are not lacking in quality when compared with those of Tendulkar and Lara.

Sir Garfield Sobers, in his autobiography, says, "fear is the worst enemy of every cricketer. I decided from an early age that I could not afford to be scared of a bowler, or a batsman, or fielding in any position, no matter how close to the wicket. So I built my cricket around myself, and I went out there fearless, whatever I had to do, but especially when I was batting. They had the ball and I had the bat, and I was always determined that they were not going to dictate to me." It holds true in Ponting's case too. He has not allowed the bowlers to dictate to him.

Like Lara, Ponting destroys an attack. Playing an aggressive shot off the first ball is a natural response from this attacking and positive-minded batsman. Of late, Tendulkar, under the weight of injury, expectations from the team, and demands of age, has effected changes in his batting style. He is gradually assuming the role of a run-accumulator. Lara continues to be a run-plunderer. But Ponting combines both qualities most effectively.

Adaptability has been Ponting's strong point. In a rare achievement, he has topped the aggregate in Tests and one-day internationals in a calendar year. By scoring 1,544 runs in Tests and 1,199 in one-day internationals, he has demonstrated his consistency in a stunning fashion.

A study of Ponting's career would give a fair indication of how organised his batting has been from the time he arrived in 1995-96. In his first 20 Tests he scored two centuries and seven 50s. In the next 20 he got five and five. And then began the steady rise in his batting graph. From Tests 41 to 60, he hit six centuries and four 50s; from Tests 61 to 80 seven centuries and six 50s; from Tests 81 to 99 he had six centuries and ten 50s. We all know how he celebrated his century of Tests by becoming the only batsman in Test history to crack a hundred in each innings of his 100th Test. This was a statistical journey into a batsman's career decorated with some distinguished performances under stress.

Ponting may not enjoy the same fan following as Tendulkar or Lara but that cannot, in any way, take the sheen off his stupendous record in the last four years. By scoring 19 centuries and 17 fifties, he emerges streets ahead of the rest.

Of course, Ponting has failed the test in India, the only country where he has an abysmal record. In his eight Test appearances here, he has scored only 172 runs at a dreadful average of 12.28. This is where Tendulkar and Lara score over the Australian. They have not suffered such low spells overseas. But at home, Ponting has whipped the Indian bowlers to the tune of 1,081 runs in seven Tests.

Once again, we shall rely on statistics to give Ponting his due. After Don Bradman and Wally Hammond, he stands out for his amazing consistency at number three. In contemporary cricket, Rahul Dravid and Lara are in the race with Ponting. Even Sobers admits that every batsman has an initial spell of nervousness, but Ponting dispels this line of thinking with his unwavering concentration and aggressive batting. The moment he arrives at the crease, his mind is ready for the battle.

Ponting has nine scores of 150-plus in his 28 Test centuries. He has this tendency to appear comfortable at the wicket under any circumstances. One cannot forget the instance when he was struck on the face by Javagal Srinath, but smashed the next ball to the boundary. Ponting is not the kind who would allow a bowler to take the upper hand.

Who can forget Viv Richards' 189 against England. It was an epic. And Tendulkar's back-to-back centuries against Australia in Sharjah. They were classics. However, one innings will always be remembered in modern cricket for the fervent manner in which it was constructed and the lasting impact it had on the event. The 2003 World Cup final at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, when Ponting single-handedly snatched the contest away from India.

It was an amazing display in a situation that favoured India. The pitch suited the Indians and the venue too, for there was hardly any support for Australia in the stands. But once Ponting unleashed his flurry of shots, the crowd just watched in awe, as did the eleven Indians on the field.

It was one of the greatest exhibitions of batting of all time as Ponting played the role of a leader perfectly, and Australia extended its tenure as the one-day world champions. His unbeaten 140 could be divided into two parts. The initial part was devoted to laying the foundation and the latter to consolidating the position as he hit four boundaries and eight sixes in his 121-ball knock that put India out of the contest.

That day India had no clue as to how to stop Ponting's innovative hitting.

Ponting, let it be recorded, was almost not considered for captaincy. His image took a dip following a few unsavoury incidents but he showed a remarkably strong character in fighting his way into recognition. Controversies hurt his personality of a happy-go-lucky person, but then as captain of a cricket team of a sport-loving nation, Ponting had to exercise restraint in his off the field demeanour. He did not lose time in learning the responsibilities that come with captaincy and quickly settled down to carry on the legacy left behind by the legendary Steve Waugh.

Waugh, in fact, was among the very few who had identified Ponting as "the future of Australian cricket" because he was convinced that the Tasmanian had the quality to handle pressure. "I am always fascinated to watch how a guy handles a pressure situation. Some players become animated, some train extra hard, some withdraw — but the true greats keep their self-belief, trust themselves and continue to work away," Waugh says in his autobiography. It's so true of Ponting.

This season could well be a delight for lovers of attacking batsmanship. Tendulkar, with 35 Test centuries, and Lara, with 31, are engaged in a pulsating race with Ponting breathing down their necks. Scores of 117, 11, 71, 53, 120 and 143 not out against South Africa at home have established Ponting's intentions and credentials. In his native Launceston, the third oldest city in Australia, he is already a legend.

It won't be long before the distinction is accorded him on a larger scale. World cricket needs players of the calibre of Ponting to woo audiences, for he is the kind who does not discriminate between batting in any form of cricket. His aim is solely to dictate, dominate and decimate.