Picky Ponting has arrived. He means business. The captain of Australia will be in England for four months and yesterday, as lucidly as one of his booming front-foot drives, he made it plain that by the end of September he intends to have annexed the World Twenty20, the Ashes and the one-day series. Most of all the Ashes.
The captain of Australia was in splendid form and his opening public remarks were trenchant, pertinent and mischievous. He was in Nottingham officially at the behest of the International Cricket Council to offer some thoughts on the impending World Twenty20. But Ponting knew the score, he knew that he was there to be ambushed to talk of the Ashes so he simply headed off his interrogators at the pass.
It was perfectly charming stuff by a supreme batsman on his fourth Ashes tour, but it was full of little asides, carefully placing doubt, stressing how wonderful life is in Australia's camp. He knew exactly where to hurt the old enemy – by questioning ever so gently the fitness of their best players, the currently injured Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen and musing whether they would be able or should be picked to play in the first part of the series.
"That's the big decision the England selectors will have to make before the first Test," he said. "Flintoff is obviously very important to their set up but as we saw in 2007, if he is not 100 per cent fit then maybe the sort of impact he can make is not there."
Ponting was quite willing to expand, to let his audience know that, of course, he had thought about this and might like what he saw. "From 2005 to 2007 we saw two completely different players and that had a lot to do with the level of fitness he had under his belt leading into each series," he said. "I think they are going to have to make a big decision. I don't know where Pietersen is at either, I don't know how bad his Achilles problem is, they could face something similar there as well." He had not been asked about Pietersen but he was not about to miss out on the opportunity to mention him.
Ponting, like his senior colleagues Michael Clarke and Mike Hussey, deliberately withdrew from the Indian Premier League to rest himself for a busy summer of cricket. Flintoff and Pietersen both played in the tournament and both are now injured.
"I don't really know the full extent of their injuries and how much cricket they had actually played leading into the IPL. I was only worried about the players in my side and what our workloads had been like," Ponting said. "With the amount of big tournaments we have coming up it was about making sure we were in the best shape."
The inference was that Flintoff and Pietersen might not have gone to South Africa considering what lay ahead. But then they had so much to earn. "There was obviously great incentive with the amount of money that they both went for. For us it was a great opportunity to step away from cricket for a few weeks and make sure we were in the best shape we could be in." Flintoff and Pietersen might have felt additional pain in their knee and Achilles, respectively, at that point.
Ponting has been reinvigorated by Australia's triumphant tour of South Africa earlier this year. Against the odds, with a remodelled team and following defeats in India and at home against South Africa, his team won 2-1.
"It's one of the highlights of my career walking off in Durban with those younger guys behind me," he said. "I purposely walked off about 10 paces ahead of the group and stopped at the boundary to look back to see Phil Hughes with a big smile on his face and Marcus North and Andrew McDonald hugging each other. It was great to see them find out what they are capable of achieving."
This was not the hard-nosed, steely professional Ponting but the old romantic from small-town Tasmania. "I said when this transitional phase started I saw it as being one of the most exciting periods of my career and I haven't been disappointed yet. I am confident we can keep growing here and put up a really good showing."
But surely Australia are not as good as they were, Ricky? "I can understand people thinking that, [after we have lost] some of the all-time greats. But I am intimidated by good players not names." Welcome Ricky, welcome Australia. Whatever lies ahead, they were spellbinding opening shots.
Ashes Watch: 39 DAYS TO GO
Brett Lee: officially too nice to be an Aussie. He yesterday described Andrew Flintoff as "the world's best bloke". Expect he'll bowl a long-hop to get Fred off the mark in Cardiff, too.