There is still more than three months to go until the Ashes series begins in Brisbane, but for Ricky Ponting the action cannot come soon enough as he looks forward to the series that will ultimately define how he is remembered in Australia. The Australia captain spoke passionately yesterday at a press conference as he promoted the release of his latest book, The Captain's Year, but as he looked forward to his team's schedule for the next nine months, it was clear what was most on his mind.
Ponting has captained the Australian one-day side since 2003 and has been the Test captain since 2004, a period in which the Aussies have enjoyed great success, winning the World Cup twice, and dominating every other Test nation. But all of that will be put in the shade if Australia's record Test run scorer fails in his quest to regain the Ashes from England. Should he fail, his legacy will be that he is the only Australian captain of the modern era to lose three Ashes series.
And he is already starting with mind games to prevent that from happening. In particular he has taken a pop at the number of foreign born players in the England side. "I have got a lot of thoughts on why they pick those guys [non-England-born players], it is quite surprising when you look at their side and work out how many there are," Ponting said. "But it doesn't matter where they are born, we have got to make sure whatever team they put out we are well equipped to break them down."
The Tasmanian also took a swipe at Eoin Morgan, the first Irish-born batsman to score a Test hundred for England in more than a century with his 130 against Pakistan at Trent Bridge, describing him as being "untested". After being named man of the recent one-day series against Australia, Morgan is averaging almost 37 from five Tests. But Ponting warned: "It [Test cricket] is a lot different [to one-dayers]."
Ponting clearly had Morgan in his sights as he spoke with reporters at the team camp on Queensland's Sunshine Coast ahead of October's tour to India. "I think one of the reasons for playing him is his attitude and the way he goes about it - but he hasn't been tested against us yet," he said. "Although he has played a couple of Tests, it will be a massive step up for him going into an Ashes series."
The rest of the probable England squad threw up few surprises for Ponting. "I guess the beauty about their side is that we have seen all their players a fair bit," he said. "There will be no surprises, as far as we are concerned, on what they can do." The 2005 Ashes series was a shock to the system, but a gracious Ponting acknowledged at the time that they had been up against an inspired English side, who in the likes of Marcus Trescothick, Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones and Kevin Pietersen had players who were playing at the top of their game.
But the 2009 loss in England was definitely harder to swallow for both Ponting and his team. The England team they lost 2-1 to last year was not a team at the peak of their powers. Ponting reckons the present Australia side is back to being on the verge of "something special" over the next eight months packed with an Ashes series, the tour to India and next year's World Cup. "I am looking forward to the next eight months of international cricket probably more than I have any period of my career," Ponting said.
"I have been lucky to play in a lot of great teams and had success with those teams but I feel the current team of players now is on the brink of doing something special as well." But it is the Ashes, and his own legacy, that are at the forefront of Ponting's mind. "I am the only Australian captain in history to lose two Ashes series - I will do my best to make sure it isn't three [and] the players are on the same page there," he said.
Meanwhile, Flintoff has warned Andrew Strauss, the England captain, that his reputation as a leader will be defined by his side's performances in the Ashes series. Strauss has impressed as captain in the 18 months since he took the reins from Pietersen, but Flintoff is aware of the difficulty of leading a side in Australia after he was left humiliated four years ago when his England side were whitewashed 5-0.
England have not won a series on Australian soil in 24 years, and the all-rounder warned: "If you look at Straussy's record, there's no doubt he's taken England on and the side has done well. But ultimately he'll be judged on what happens this winter, especially after what happened in 2006 when the side didn't perform. So far, you cannot fault him. He has a very good relationship with Andy Flower [the coach], they seem to be talking all the time. That's crucial."
Ponting claimed last week that his side were capable of repeating their whitewash success over Strauss's side when the five-match series begins in Brisbane on November 25. Flintoff laughed off Ponting's prediction and believes England's hopes of a long-awaited series win rest on how well Graeme Swann, the off-spinner, and James Anderson, the swing bowler, perform in Australian conditions. "I think Ponting is mistaken," Flintoff said. "Look how the two sides are shaping up and England are doing well."
* With agencies