Ponting plays down 'gap' between South Africa, Australia
In early 2009, Ricky Ponting presided over an Australian tour of South Africa when Graeme Smith's men were favourites. Australia were clinging to the No. 1 Test ranking they had held for six years, but South Africa would take it if they won the series. Ponting's side completed an impressive away-series victory and stayed at the top for a few more months, until their Ashes debacle. They haven't returned to No. 1 since. Over the next few weeks, under Michael Clarke's leadership, they can.
This time it's the South Africans who are No. 1 in the world. The top spot is theirs to lose. Again, Smith's team is the favourite ahead of this series. Their record away from home is strong, but it's extremely unusual for Australia to enter a home Test series as the underdogs. But having kept up with South Africa over the past three series - the teams are locked together 4-4 in the past four years - Ponting wants his team-mates to realise how little difference there is between the sides.
"I don't think there's anything negative at all about being an underdog going into a series," Ponting said in Brisbane ahead of the first Test. "South Africa are deservedly the No. 1 team in the world. But I think the gap between them and us is not that great. When we were No. 1 we knew we had everyone chasing us. South Africa are certainly going to know over the next few weeks that they've got a very good cricket team chasing them and trying to take that No. 1 mantle away."
When Ponting was in charge during the golden era of Australian cricket, crushing sides was their modus operandi, clean-sweeps often a formality. It has been a very different story for the South Africans, who are in their second period at No. 1, having originally reached the pinnacle in mid-2009.
The last time South Africa won consecutive Tests in a series was in Perth and Melbourne in 2008. They haven't won any two successive Tests out of their past 20, a time during which they have played New Zealand, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Pakistan, India, Australia and England. By comparison, Australia have won eight of their past ten Tests, having risen from the nadir of the 2009-10 Ashes.
"I don't know what makes them tick, I don't know what makes them worried about big occasions in games," Ponting said. "All I know is that when we've played our best for long periods of time against South Africa we've managed to have a lot of success. We know what it is that makes us play our best cricket. We know what makes us achieve great results. We just have to do those things better than South Africa do for five days."
The series is being billed as a battle between two strong pace attacks, but that in itself means it is also a matter of which batting line-up handles the speed and movement the best. If AB de Villiers takes the wicketkeeping gloves, South Africa will have a long batting order, with JP Duminy likely to come in at No. 7. But Ponting does not believe they will offer any more of a threat than the Indian batsmen did last summer, when Australia took the series 4-0.
"The attack that we put out last year will be very similar to what we go out with tomorrow in our conditions and conditions that we know very well," he said. "All the guys, Siddle and Pattinson especially, have got a lot of first-class cricket under their belt and have taken a lot of wickets at the start of the summer. We have to know that the way we bowled and the way we played last year was somewhere near our best and if we produce that again, it doesn't matter what batting line-up we're bowling to, we'll take 20 wickets in a Test match.
"We've got some areas for their batsmen that we're going to target. Our young quicks are dying to get out there and have a crack at some of their top-order players. You can expect some fireworks. Some of their top order can expect a lot of short balls as well, that's an area that we think we can really attack them."
Not that they will be alone in doing so. Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander, all in the top 10 ICC Test bowling rankings, are all perfectly capable of extracting the same bounce from the Australian pitches, especially the seam-friendly Gabba and WACA surfaces. The good news for the Australians is that they have at least handled Morkel well in the past; his 23 wickets at 38.21 against Australia is vastly inferior to his overall record.
"I think we've played him well in the past," Ponting said of Morkel. "When you're that tall and you bang the ball into the wicket you tend to get more bounce than the shorter fast bowlers do. I think that's his great weapon. We've had a look at what he's done over the last few series… if anything he's managed to bowl a little bit fuller the last few years than he did before that, which has probably enabled him to have more success."
But Morkel is just one part of a strong attack. Handling Steyn and Philander could be even tougher. If Australia can do so, they'll be well on the way to reclaiming that No. 1 position.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here