Ashes loom but Australia must remain focused
As Ricky Ponting walked through the MCC Museum at Lord's on Monday, he passed within metres of the Ashes urn. He was on his way to face the TV cameras ahead of a neutral series against Pakistan but in an Ashes year, how could he not have one eye on regaining the greatest prize in Australian cricket? The tiny trophy was right there in front of him, taunting him, yet he must wait four months before it is up for grabs.
Between now and November, Australia have four Tests to put themselves into an Ashes-winning frame of mind. They have made a good start, having won seven of their eight Tests since leaving England empty-handed last year. Stumbling against Pakistan, who haven't beaten them in a Test in nearly 15 years, would be a massive snag in their plans.
For that reason, Ponting has his sights set firmly on stopping Shahid Afridi, the new Pakistan captain, from having any influence on the game. In a side without Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan, Afridi is the undisputed leader of a young group. He claims to have restored the unity of the team but Ponting knows that if Afridi fails on the field, so might his colleagues.
"From an outsider's point of view at the moment it looks as though they're sort of running a bit off him," Ponting said. "I think a lot of their younger blokes look up to him and he's their leader, the bloke they go to when they need something to happen, so it's pretty much like every captain of every side is. We always talk about trying to nullify the captain and take the captain down early and we'll try and do that in this series as well, there's no doubt about that."
Equally, while Australia are keen to shut down a new-look Pakistan, they also want to try some fresh ideas themselves. Steven Smith will audition for an Ashes role, Tim Paine will gain valuable experience in case he is required again in the near future and Michael Clarke will be promoted to No. 4, a shift that will remain in place for the Ashes.
The move up the order for Clarke is a significant step for the man most likely to be Australia's next Test captain, and potentially their No. 3 when Ponting eventually retires. Over the past year, Clarke has been Australia's leading Test run scorer while Michael Hussey, who is heading down to No. 5, has sometimes looked scratchy when exposed to the new ball.
"It's just about how well he's played," Ponting said of Clarke. "I think his game is very well suited to higher up the order against the new ball, probably a bit more than what Hussey's is right at the moment. That's the reason. He has been our most consistent player and that's been in pretty much all conditions around the world.
"The last Ashes series over here he showed that at different times and in challenging times when the ball was moving around quite a bit, that he can do the job up the order. He has developed his game nicely over the last couple of years and hence when you have those guys who are playing that well, we all know they need to be batting as soon as possible, so that's why he's moved up an extra spot."
It's a change that was made with the Ashes in mind. In England last year, Clarke was comfortably Australia's leading scorer and not surprisingly, they want to get the most out of him in the return battle. The two Tests at Lord's and Headingley, in addition to the two Tests in India in October, will also provide some insight into Australia's bowling ahead of the Ashes.
Ben Hilfenhaus is back after a long bout of knee tendonitis, which kept him out of all but the first Test of Australia's home summer, while Smith's ability as a Test-class spinner will be closely monitored. If he shows enough promise in England, and in India if given the chance, he could threaten Nathan Hauritz come the first Test at the Gabba. All in all, Ponting sees the next two weeks as a valuable building block towards Ashes redemption.
"It absolutely is," he said. "But we're not solely focused on November. We've got a lot of cricket to play before then. I see this as a great opportunity for the young guys to gain some more experience about Test cricket. It's the true form of the game, it's the game that tests you out the most, so we're going to be learning a lot about our players in not only this game but every game we play before the start of the Ashes."
Australia should remain too strong for Pakistan but if they cast their gaze too far ahead, their building block could turn into a stumbling block.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo