Excited Ponting wary of stress
Ricky Ponting would love to cradle the original Ashes urn on Monday afternoon but it is staying behind glass in the Lord's museum. This time it's a wise decision from the MCC, who own the priceless and symbolic prize, because the Australians have a history of dinting trophies during their celebrations.
"It would be nice to get a hold of the proper one once in a while," Ponting said. "If they let it out of the box."
Still, Ponting will be hugely satisfied if his thumb and index finger are squeezing a replica at the end of the fifth Test at The Oval. It would certainly beat becoming only the second Australian captain behind Billy Murdoch to lose two series in England, an unwanted record which will occur if the hosts succeed in south London from Thursday.
The significance of an occasion that will define his leadership is having an unfamiliar effect on Ponting, who has played 135 Tests and won three World Cups. "I spoke to the team before the first Test and told them I was excited about the whole series and how much it meant to me," he said. "But this game now, I don't remember being this excited for a game."
He has been waking at 6.30am, racing to breakfast and wanting to start the team meetings and training. "I can't wait for Thursday to come around and I can sense that around some of the other players in the group," he said. "We've all spoken about what the Ashes means."
Before Lord's the Australians became over-hyped and their tense start turned into their first Test defeat at the home of cricket since 1934. Ponting is wary of a repeat of the stress in this game, which is the most significant contest for all but the four players in the squad who were here for the 2-1 loss in 2005.
"That's why I've tried to not necessarily downplay this week, but not talk about how big a game it is, just talk about how exciting it is," he said. "It's easy for us older guys to talk about it that way because we've been there before, whether it's a World Cup final or other big Test matches that we've played, so we haven't spoken much to the younger guys about it. We've just let them go about their preparation and let them trust what they've been doing over the last couple of weeks."
Ponting's experience will be a crucial settling influence for the team and Michael Clarke, the vice-captain, believes he is England's biggest worry because of his reliable performances in big games. "You see 'Punter' in World Cup finals or huge matches and he always stands up," Clarke said. "That is probably one of his greatest assets as a leader, in big games he always does stand up from the front. That is certainly something that I think England should fear." This should be Ponting's last Ashes Test in England - he would be 38 and on his fifth tour if he returned in 2013 - but he has not started with the nostalgia. He played in the two-day game against England Lions at the weekend specifically to calm his young squad and keep them on track for the greatest occasion of their careers.
"It's a special series to all of us and look, it might be my last chance to get a crack at doing it here, but I'll just prepare as if it's any other game and hopefully go out and play as well as I can," he said. "That's all I can do and that's all we can control."
Australia started the series strongly in Cardiff before a sudden trough, but since the final day of the third Test they have improved dramatically, hitting their peak in the innings-and-80-run win at Headingley. Ponting is highly satisfied with the way his side has progressed after the setback at Lord's and said the squad was happy and upbeat.
"Everyone is talking about this sudden transformation in the team, but it hasn't necessarily been that," he said. "We've played some really good cricket throughout the series and we've just had a couple of down periods that have cost us - the first morning bowling at Lord's and the first-innings batting there. Other than that our cricket has been on a steep curve upwards." A tiny urn is the reward for further improvement over the next week.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo