Andrew Strauss could not get away from Ricky Ponting in London on the eve of England's departure for Australia. There was Ponting's face, projected on to the tower of Big Ben; and there he was again, this time in cardboard cut-out form, lurking in a corner of the film theatre at Lord's as Strauss gave his final press conference before heading to Heathrow.
The first appearance was a cheeky stunt organised by Cricket Australia, while the second seemed to be coincidental (unless the Marylebone Cricket Club's Tasmanian chief executive, Keith Bradshaw, knows any different). But, either way, both sightings had Strauss chuckling. And that is just one more reason for England cricket fans to be cheerful with the start of the Ashes series now less than four weeks away.
Far from showing tension as he prepared for the biggest tour of his life, Strauss remained cool, calm and perfectly collected. And while he did not quite say it, the message coming across loud and clear is that there's only one time and one place where he now wants to see his opposite number and that is pitch-side in Brisbane on 25 November when the pair toss up half an hour before the First Test.
Strauss and his team-mates have a wonderful chance to do what no England side have done since Mike Gatting and Co won 2-1 in Australia almost a quarter of a century ago. It is unlikely to be without drama, it certainly will not be easy and the destiny of the Ashes could be unclear come the final Test in Sydney. But victory for the visitors, never mind an urn-retaining draw, seems entirely possible. What a pleasant thought that is after so many trips Down Under made more in hope than expectation.
There are question marks about both teams, and the fact they are fourth (England) and fifth (Australia) in the Test rankings underlines their shortcomings. But, for once, it is the captain of the Baggy Greens (Ponting) who is under most pressure, the man who bowls spin for England (Graeme Swann) who looks a likely match-winner, and a batsman in the visitors' ranks (Kevin Pietersen) who, despite his scratchy form, could give opposition bowlers most sleepless nights.
If Ponting loses a third Ashes series (after 2005 and 2009) he is history as Australia captain – and Michael Vaughan, a pretty good judge of most things tactical, believes England's leader can add to the pressure byout-captaining his opposite number.
"I don't see it as a battle between myself and Ricky particularly, but how we go about our business is going to have a big effect on the team," said Strauss, managing to both play down and build up the battle of the two commanders in one short answer.
From 1993 to 2007, one Australian captain after another needed to do no more than look in Shane Warne's direction to have butterflies swarming in English stomachs. Swann does not quite spark that reaction but he has developed into a wonderful, match-winning bowler, and Strauss would not swap him for any spinner now on the world stage.
The batsmen of Western Australia, South Australia and Australia A will be under instructions to get after Swann during England's three warm-up games before the First Test. But when it comes to the Ashes? "I've got no doubts whatsoever about Graeme's ability to apply pressure on the Australian batsmen," insisted Strauss. "I think he will do that very well."
What any spinner wants, of course, is a big total to play with, and England's top order must put a summer of struggle behind them to build commanding scores on what should be inviting Australian pitches. No bettertime, then, for Pietersen to awaken from his slumbers.
Those people who think Pietersen's best days are behind him will not have been encouraged by suggestions that he may start the trip on a mental downer following the management decision to keep families at bay until after the first two Tests. Pietersen once said he would not tour again without his wife, Jessica, and the couple now have a young son.
"The families have a hugely positive role to play on a tour in terms of taking people's minds off the stresses and strains of the job, and the issue is about when is the right time for them to come," said Strauss. "Having kids with jet lag a couple of days before the First Test doesn't seem the right thing to do in terms of our preparation. We've explained that to the players, and I've spoken to the wives, and they understand that. Kevin put his view across. He understands the decision has been taken for the best interests of the side and he is more than happy to abide by that."
Pietersen should also understand, by now, that the management in general – and Strauss in particular – want nothing to do with the recent comments of the former Australia coach – and now occasional England consultant – John Buchanan, who claimed the tourists' most famous player was too much of an individualist for the team's good. "John was out of line to say what he said about Kevin, especially as he has never been part of our group," said Strauss.
Buchanan will not be involved in the Ashes campaign. But Strauss fully expects Pietersen to play "a really big and positive role" over the next few months. If he is right then England's chances of success should soon look even rosier.Reuse content