Ricky Ponting has questioned whether England have the batting strength necessary to retain the Ashes by winning in Australia, a feat that hasn't been accomplished since Mike Gatting's team did so in 1986-87.
"Kevin Pietersen, obviously, is a big question mark for them at the moment," Ponting told UAE's Radio 2 (listen to the entire interview on ESPNcricinfo's Timeout). "Alastair Cook is just holding on to his spot by the skin of his teeth, and [Paul] Collingwood has probably not had the best Test summer of his life either. So there is enough happening around there to know that they will be a little nervous when they arrive in Australia."
Pietersen averaged 27.25 in four innings against Pakistan this summer and hasn't scored a century in 19 months. John Buchanan, the former Australia coach who has accepted a consulting role with the ECB, had also suggested that Pietersen could be a 'major problem' for England.
Cook had been under intense pressure following a prolonged lean spell before earning some breathing room with a gutsy 110 against Pakistan at The Oval. Collingwood had a successful tour of South Africa last winter but six of his previous eight Test innings have been scores of five or less.
Ponting said that England could pose a strong challenge, especially with the rise of offspinner Graeme Swann and fast bowler Stuart Broad, whose five wickets at The Oval were vital to England reclaiming the Ashes last year, continuing to deliver in crunch situations.
"They have some good players in their side at the moment, who are playing well," Ponting said. "Graeme Swann is probably the stand out. Stuart Broad, and probably their captain [Andrew Strauss], these have been the guys who have stood up for them over the last couple of years. But they have certainly been the more consistent team than any English team I have played against in the past."
Australia have a formidable home record, having lost only one series since 1992-93. They blanked England 5-0 in 2006-07, and Ponting hoped his side could repeat that performance. "We all know how hard opposition teams find it coming to Australia, and particularly starting at the Gabba, they always find it a difficult place to win. So as an Australian, and an Australian captain, we are hoping for a very similar series to the last one."
Ponting has played in more Test wins than anyone else and already has three World Cup trophies - two as captain - but insisted his hunger for the game hadn't waned.
"There is no doubt about that. I mean, I would have not worked as hard as I have over the last eight weeks if the hunger wasn't there," he said. "I am as excited about the next period of cricket, with the Ashes and then the World Cup at the end of that, so that is about six or seven months of biggest cricket tournaments that you ever play."