Tendulkar's recent form an inspiration - Ponting
These are uncertain times for Australian cricket. After more than a decade of dominance, the No. 1 ranking has been surrendered, and the passing of a golden generation has seen losses to India and England, and an unprecedented home defeat against South Africa. Ricky Ponting's own form has been patchy, and the gap between him and Sachin Tendulkar, both in terms of runs and centuries, has widened dramatically over the past year. After a long break following the series against Pakistan in England, Ponting is hoping both he and the team will emerge stronger.
"It's my responsibility to make sure that the Australian cricket team is the highest-ranked team that we can possibly make it," he said. "None of the guys in our team at the moment are proud of the fact that we're the No.4-ranked team in the world. We've got better personnel in our side at the moment to make that ranking climb higher over the next 12 to 18 months.
"As far as me chasing Sachin ... I was actually expecting that he might have retired before now [smiles]. He's 37 and obviously still playing very well. There's inspiration for everyone around the world to take from what he's done over the last 12 months. Batting doesn't get any easier, but to see someone like that have the 12-month period that he's had ... it doesn't matter if you're 35 like I am, or 25 like some of the other guys in our side, it certainly gives you something to aim for."
For the man himself, the next fortnight presents an opportunity to improve a decidedly modest record on Indian soil. "It's a place that I've never mastered," he said candidly. "I've never mastered batting in these conditions. I felt that in the last series over here, I took some really big strides in becoming a better player on the subcontinent. My first hundred in Bangalore at the start of the last series was satisfying and I made 80-odd in Delhi. There were some positive signs for me last time and learning a bit more about the conditions and the Indian bowlers gives me a chance to hopefully have a good series."
There's still some uncertainty over whether Harbhajan Singh, his chief tormentor in these conditions, will play the first Test, but Ponting was expecting nothing less. "I'm not sure if he's doubtful," he said with a grin. "I understand that he's hurt his ankle, but the day he apparently did that was the day our game finished at Chandigarh. He was down bowling centre wicket that afternoon. He trained today, so it might just be a bit of a smokescreen. They might just be trying to sneak one past us there. I'd expect him to play. But if he doesn't, then they've got a couple of very good spinners, [Amit] Mishra and [Pragyan] Ojha, who will come in and do a good job for their side."
When it was suggested to him that some felt he was over the hill, he responded with laughter. "I'm not sure if I've heard it put that way just yet. The fact is that I'm 35 and I know there's been a bit in the papers over the past couple of days about maybe being a little bit past my best. We'll see what this series holds, and what the Ashes hold. I know that I'm feeling better about myself and about my game than I have in a long time. Having a long break before we came gave me an opportunity to sit back and really think about the things I needed to work hard on to become a better player. That's all I can control. I can control how I train, how I prepare and how well I play. That's in my hands."
There's every likelihood that this will be Ponting's last Test tour of India, but he was adamant that such thoughts were far from his mind in the build-up to this series. "I don't really know what the FTP [Future Tours Programme] is at the moment," he said. "It changes quite quickly, doesn't it? I guess in the last 10 years we've played, we've made a tour to India most years.
"I honestly don't know if this will be my last tour or not. I haven't thought about it. Retirement for me is the furthest thing from my mind at the moment. It's about becoming a better player than I was last year and I certainly feel on the way to doing that. The finish line for me is not even in sight yet.
"I've got some much exciting cricket to play over the next six to eight months, with this tour, the Ashes back in Australia and then a World Cup soon after. As an experienced player, it doesn't get any better or any bigger than that. I'm as excited as I've ever been in my cricket career about what lies ahead. If I happen to get through the next six or eight months playing very good cricket, then who knows? I might be back here again for one more go."