Crisis tends to bring out the best in us - Ponting
Even as Ricky Ponting looked ahead to Australia's winner-takes-all encounter against England on Saturday at the Sawai Man Singh Stadium, he was emphatic in his assessment that the result wouldn't have any sort of bearing on the upcoming Ashes series. For the moment, Australia's focus is very much on the Champions Trophy, the only major event where they haven't even made the final.
"Both teams probably are," he said with a wry smile, when asked if his side was champing at the bit to take on England again. "It doesn't feel like that long ago [the last Ashes series]. There's been a lot made of this, and how teams might take something away from it for the Ashes. I'm not a big believer in that. There's a lot of change-over when it comes to the players in the Test side and the one-day one."
Defeat in Mumbai to a resurgent West Indies side was certainly a jolt, and Australia may well be tempted into a change on a surface where India and England struggled to aggregate 250 runs over two innings. The pitch appeared extremely dry and the cracks on the surface could be seen even from the press box, nearly 100 yards away.
Brad Hogg bowled only three overs in Mumbai, while Michael Clarke and Andrew Symonds combined for 17, and may well be left out to accommodate the pace and swing option offered by Mitchell Johnson. Johnson made a big impression in bowler-friendly conditions in Malaysia, but is very much an unknown quantity on these type of pitches. He missed practice today because of a stomach bug but is expected to be fit tomorrow.
If Australia do leave Hogg out, it could also be due to some concern over the dew factor that so negated Sri Lanka's slow bowlers in the game against Pakistan. "The dew's been unpredictable, both here and in Mumbai," he said. "It certainly didn't get very wet the other night in Mumbai. I think everyone there will bat first, while maybe bowling first at the other venues. Whatever you end up doing first, you just have to do it very well."
The batting too has been below par since the start of the season, heavily reliant on individual brilliance to offset unaccustomed wobbles at the top of the order. Shane Watson failed as opener in Mumbai, but will surely get a chance to redeem himself here, and for the likes of Damien Martyn, the doors of Last Chance Saloon will swing shut if the run-drought extends into the next fortnight.
"To be fair, some of the pitches we've played on haven't been great," said Ponting, when asked about the lack of dominant performances with the bat. "But yeah, the bowlers have been very good and it's about time the batters put some runs on the board." The downward spiral continued in Mumbai, where Jerome Taylor's hat-trick sent them tumbling to a 10-run defeat. "Whenever you lose, you break things down and analyse what went wrong," said Ponting. "We made crucial mistakes at bad times - lost wickets up front, and then one run-out really set us back when we seemed in control of the situation. You can't afford to make those in low-scoring games."
Australia, though, tend to be at their best in crisis. Ponting referred pointedly to the 1999 World Cup, where Australia lost their opening two league matches before winning everything in sight and also to the VB Series last year, where they lost the first final to Sri Lanka before storming back. "It tends to bring out the best in us," he said, "when we're under the pump."
With many of the questions centred on pre-Ashes sparring matches, Ponting laughed off suggestions that the team would be targetting any specific individuals on Saturday. "It's the bowlers who come out and say that, most Glenn [McGrath] and Shane [Warne]," he said with a laugh. "I think they like putting themselves under pressure. I think it was [Andrew] Strauss that Glenn spoke about before the last series. Maybe it'll be him again tomorrow."
The one-day matches between the two team during the NatWest Series and the NatWest Challenge last year were too close to call, but Ponting suggested that England had stagnated as a one-day team since. "Their one-day form hasn't been that good since we played them last year," he said. "They haven't played as well as they would have liked."
Ponting refused to make too much of the increased pollution that's sure to be a factor during the game after tens of thousands of fireworks and crackers have been set off as part of the Diwali festivities. "I sent the boys out this morning to buy some gas-masks," he said, tongue firmly in cheek. "We know there'll be a bit of haze, a bit of smoke, but we just hope we can see the ball."
The scheduling sees Australia facing an eight-day break between this match and the game against India in Mohali, but according to Ponting, it was the hosts that were worst affected. "What can you do about it?" he said when asked what he thought of the long gap. "I think India have got the worst of it - 11 days without a game is almost unheard of in a one-day tournament."
Having faltered at the finish against West Indies, Australia will undoubtedly go hard at the English. Despite protestations to the contrary, a few Ashes-related blows will certainly be aimed. The new-ball bowlers will target Strauss and Andrew Flintoff - "If we get him out, it leaves them a bit thin when it comes to power-hitting lower down the order," said Ponting, when asked about Flintoff's decision to bat at No.3 - and Steve Harmison's dreadful first over against India will no doubt encourage Adam Gilchrist and Watson.
"This is our second game of the Champions Trophy," said Ponting, brushing off suggestions that this was a prelude to the real thing. "I don't see a lot coming out of it as far as the Ashes is concerned. Once we get back home, we'll start thinking about that." Having lost their opening games, both teams will be hoping that they don't get home too early.
Australia (likely): 1 Adam Gilchrist (wk), 2 Shane Watson, 3 Ricky Ponting (capt), 4 Damien Martyn, 5 Andrew Symonds, 6 Michael Clarke, 7 Michael Hussey, 8 Mitchell Johnson, 9 Brett Lee, 10 Nathan Bracken, 11 Glenn McGrath.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo