Ponting looks to the Ashes after undefeated summer
Ricky Ponting is confident Australia are in the best possible shape to regain the Ashes later this year, after a summer in which they won seven out of eight Tests. Series victories against West Indies and Pakistan were followed by a 2-0 triumph in New Zealand and all that is left before the battle for the urn is a two-match series against Pakistan in England.
Ponting said after the final home Test in January that there were no boxes left to tick before the Ashes, although the return to form of Marcus North and the emergence of Ryan Harris over the past two weeks have given him extra reason to believe. The Test squad features no passengers and such is the depth that if everyone is fit, the challenge will be deciding who to leave out.
"We can't be any better placed at the moment, we have two Tests to play in England then it's straight into it," Ponting said. "There will be no excuses from where we are sitting. We've done everything we would have liked for us to have achieved throughout the summer, there's never been a game that has dragged on. When there's been big moments, we've stepped in and got the job done. That's what I expect from these players and they know that.
"We have got great depth at the moment, which every good team needs and every good team wants. You look at Doug Bollinger, he came into the side when a few guys were injured in India and he hasn't looked back and the same for Ryan Harris, he's stepped up to the plate and become a very good international cricketer."
Harris ended his first Test series with nine wickets at an average of 23, while Bollinger has firmly established himself alongside Mitchell Johnson as a frontline fast bowler. It leaves questions over Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus, who began the summer as the first-choice new-ball bowlers before succumbing to injury.
Hilfenhaus was the Man of the Match in his only Test of the summer before being sidelined by a knee problem, while Siddle struggled for most of the season and then suffered a back stress fracture that should keep him out of the series against Pakistan. If both men are fit by Ashes time, the make-up of Australia's attack will be a difficult selection issue.
"It's a tough question. I'm not sure what the right answer is," Ponting said. "A lot of it might be based on conditions when we get to Brisbane as well, knowing what the ball will do up there. Looking at someone like Doug, he'll swing the new ball. Hilfenhaus got five I think up there and Man of the Match against the West Indies in the first game of the summer last year. Being a quality swing bowler like he is, if he's fit then he'll come into calculations.
"It's a good problem to have. Knowing someone like Pete Siddle as well, who can run in and bowl at good pace and unsettle batters and be a good guy to have around the group. To have those guys all fully fit will make the job tough for the selectors. I'm not sure who has got their noses in front at the moment."
What is certain is that Australia's summer couldn't have been much better, the only Test blemish being when West Indies drew in Adelaide. By the time Under the Southern Cross was belted out at 5.20pm on March 31 at Seddon Park, it signalled the end of an excellent season, with the players dispersing either home or to the IPL before their next challenges, which will culminate with the Ashes opener in November.
"There were probably some question-marks over our Test cricket before the summer started, being a little bit inconsistent through the Ashes series," Ponting said. "I'm really proud of what the group has been able to do, especially when you consider all the cricket that we've had to play. Generally when you get a bit tired teams can fade away but I think if anything we've got better and stronger as a group as the year has gone on. I'm really happy with what we've achieved."
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo