Ponting looks on the bright side in SA
Ricky Ponting is making the most of the unfamiliar role of underdog, insisting that the pressure of favouritism and the pursuit of the No. 1 Test ranking could overwhelm Graeme Smith's men throughout the three-Test series in South Africa.
Ponting was in a bullish mood at a pre-departure press conference in Sydney on Monday, confident that a victory in South Africa would go far to establishing a new, competitive identity for a team eroded by injuries and retirements in recent seasons.
"You wouldn't have to be Einstein to work out that they're going to be favourites," Ponting said. "If we get off to a great start over there with them being favourites, and with a lot of expectation from their people and their crowds, then who knows -- things could turn against them pretty quickly.
"There won't be any added pressure on us, but maybe on South Africa. They've been striving for a long time to be recognised as being the No. 1 Test team in the world, so maybe that will weigh on their minds more than ours."
The Australians have reached a critical point in their evolution as a Test side. Series defeats to India and South Africa eroded the aura of invincibility, but the 103-run victory in the most recent Test in Sydney provided Australian audiences with hope that, while nowhere near their zenith, Ponting's men may have ascended above the point of nadir.
Ponting underlined the importance of the month ahead by equating a series victory in South Africa above anything he had previously achieved in his esteemed 128-Test career. "I'm ultra excited about the challenge of playing against the No. 2 ranked Test team in the world for three Tests on their soil," he said. "It's the reason you play the game.
"I've been around a long time and played a lot of games but this will be as big a series for me as any I've played in. This would be a huge win for us, there's no doubt about that. Coming back from the Ashes in 2005 having lost over there and steeling ourselves for the Ashes in Australia was one of the biggest moments in my career. This one is certainly going to rank up there alongside that. A series like this could certainly be the making of the team. If we go there and play well and happen to win the series, then everything that's happened over the last few months will hopefully be forgotten about."
The Australians will reveal their hand early on tour, with Ponting indicating that the XI selected for the three-day game against South Africa A in Potchefstroom will most likely be that which takes the field for the first Test at the Wanderers on February 26. The battle between the incumbent Andrew McDonald and the uncapped Marcus North for the all-rounder's berth looms as the most intriguing selection duel, although Ben Hilfenhaus could yet challenge Doug Bollinger for a fast-bowling place after taking seven wickets in four one-day matches against the South Africans.
"I don't think it was any coincidence that towards the end of the summer when we got a more steady and stable team on the park that we started playing our best cricket," Ponting said. "Hopefully when we get to Potchefstroom for our first game [beginning on Thursday] we can pick what we feel might be our first Test team and, touch wood, we can go through the South African series picking the team that will be most suited to the conditions that we'll be confronted with.
"A lot of the guys in the squad were part of the squad that played South Africa out here so they've had a taste of losing and they've had a taste of winning that last Test match of the series. There are a number of things riding on this. The winner of this series will be the No. 1-ranked team in world cricket. We've been there before on a number of occasions and we've played very well in South Africa in the past, but probably not with a squad with this much inexperience. If we can do that again and have little things go our way more than they did in Australia, there's no reason why we can't win this series."