Ponting hopes for controversy-free series
Having lost the Test series 2-0 back in 2008, setting the record straight is high on Ricky Ponting's priority list. At the same time, he recognises that a contest that has produced some gripping cricket over the past decade and more has added significance as a result of the unsavoury headlines that have enveloped the sport in recent times. Winning will be important, but it will be just as crucial that both Test matches are played without controversy or rancour.
"Whenever I've spoken about this series over the last couple of weeks, I've said how important it is for the international game that this series is played in the right spirit," he said on the eve of the Mohali Test. "You've got to expect that it's going to be a fierce contest because you've got two very good teams playing international sport. But both teams will understand that they can't overstep the line. There's enough negativity around the world at the moment about international cricket that we have to do the best we can in this series to ensure that people want to watch the game again. There's no doubt that things have been tarnished a bit the last few weeks."
The immediate target is victory in Mohali, a venue where India haven't lost since the days when West Indies were still kings of the Test-match castle. "We'd love to come here and win," Ponting said. "We know how big the challenge is. We also know just how competitive a series it was over here last time. Last time, I don't think any of our bowlers had played Test cricket in India.
"We've got a little bit more experience this time round. Our batting group is a bit like India's, pretty experienced. Most of us have played a fair bit here in the subcontinent. It's not so much about revenge, it's about us playing a brand of cricket over the next 10 days that's going to be good enough for us to remain competitive and win both of these Test matches."
Over the past decade and a half, the Border-Gavaskar Trophy has seen some titanic tussles, but according to Ponting, it still ranks a step below the Ashes in terms of prestige. "I'm not sure if it's bigger than the Ashes," he said. "If you look at international cricket at the moment, Australia has three major rivals. We have England, and there's always an added edge whenever we play an Ashes series. Then you have South Africa, who have been the No.1 or No.2-ranked Test and one-day team for a few years now. Our rivalry against them has been very strong. And there's India, who we've had some amazing battles with over the past five or six years. All those series are exceptionally entertaining to be part of as a player. I would still put the Ashes slightly above the other two."
Given that India are unlikely to provide the sort of pace-friendly conditions that gifted Australia victory at Nagpur back in 2004, Ponting wasn't unduly concerned by the nature of the pitch. "I had a quick look at the wicket yesterday," he said. "We haven't been out on the ground just yet but as soon as the rest of the boys arrive, we'll go out and have a look at the conditions and see what we're confronted with. A few of the guys talked to the groundsman yesterday and he felt there was probably a little bit more moisture in the wicket than usual. That's had a lot to do with the weather last week, obviously.
"Our preparation since we've been here has been very good. I've been really impressed with the work the boys have done, coming off a long break. Everyone's keen, fit and fresh and we're looking forward to getting out there and getting the Test match underway tomorrow. This is a great challenge for the Australian cricket team, to take on the No.1-ranked side in the world."
Strong performances with bat and ball in the lone warm-up game have enhanced the good vibes in the Australian camp. "I think the big thing we got out of that was our partnerships," Ponting said. "Our batting partnerships in the first innings of the game were very good. The guys having come off no cricket for such a long period of time...to execute our skills as well as we did was very satisfying. We've been very specific with the way we've played as well. We focussed on fewer areas that we have to do very well and the things we had talked about going into the tour game were the things we did very well. I also thought our bowling partnerships late on day two were outstanding."
If there's one thing that's left a few creases on his forehead, it's the late arrival from South Africa of Michael Hussey and Doug Bollinger. "They arrived Tuesday afternoon, so when you're looking at Test-match preparation that's not ideal." said Ponting of the two men who won the Champions League T20 with the Chennai Super Kings. "They were flying for close to 24 hours. That meant that yesterday was a lighter day than they would normally have had. Doug bowled maybe two overs in the nets, and Hussey had quite a short hit.
"We were just trying to freshen them up as much as we can. Huss got through very well. We're going to wait on Dougie and he should have a good solid workout in the nets today. We'll see how he gets through that and how he pulls up tonight as far as his fitness goes for tomorrow.
The positive for us is that they've been playing good competitive cricket for the last two-and-a-half weeks. They should be in pretty good shape with their cricket skills."
With India also affected - MS Dhoni, Suresh Raina and Rahul Dravid were also part of the final stages of the competition in South Africa - we'll soon find out which team bounces back best from the disrupted preparation.