MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Ricky Ponting knew his time was up when he bowed out of international cricket a year ago, but the competitive fires still rage for the former Australia captain when he imagines facing England one more time on home soil.
England's arrival in Perth on Friday signals the start of the cricket summer Down Under, with a four-week phoney war of tour matches, training and media hype before the second installment of back-to-back Ashes series gets underway with the first test in Brisbane.
In seasons past, Ponting would be plotting the arch-enemy's downfall at this time, refining his craft in the nets and champing at the bit for the day to arrive when he could stride to the crease to steady an innings with a defiant century.
Instead, the 38-year-old has spent his recent days looking back rather than forward, reminiscing over the highs and lows of a long and storied career on a book tour to promote his autobiography "At The Close Of Play".
Fairly or unfairly, Ponting's roaring success as a batsman and test captain has been tempered by his record against England, and the harrowing 3-1 series defeat on home soil two years ago left him the only Australian skipper to lose three Ashes series in over 100 years.
Little wonder the prospect of watching from the sidelines still tugs at the heartstrings as Australia prepares its bid to wrest the Ashes back after losing the first series 3-0 away.
"It does, a certain part of me says, 'yeah, I would love to be out there competing,'" Ponting told Reuters in an interview on Thursday.
"And when these big test matches and Ashes series come round, I'd love to be out there because that was always the pinnacle for me.
"They're the moments that we all play for. When I was a young boy growing up all I wanted to do was play cricket for Australia and then obviously on the back of that was to be involved in an Ashes series.
"That was the reason I played the game was to be involved in those series but at the end of the day my time had gone.
"I couldn't play the way I used to be able to play and when that realisation hits it's pretty easy to sort of walk away.
"The exciting thing for me now is what I have post-cricket and that's obviously a beautiful family a lot to look forward to. To have a bit of time at home the last six weeks has been fantastic."
Ponting has written candidly of his retirement in the book, his clumsy dismissals in the final home series against South Africa and the relief of telling his family that he knew it was time to hang up his bat.
Australia had wanted the hard-bitten Tasmanian to hold on until the Ashes, reasoning that his vast experience and value as a mentor would offset a declining output of runs.
Ponting's retirement and the exit of fellow veteran batsman Mike Hussey months later left captain Michael Clarke to lead a callow team into one of its toughest campaigns in recent years.
With Clarke the only bulwark in a brittle batting lineup, Australia collapsed like a house of cards with a 4-0 series loss in India, and were riven by internal strife which led to their coach Mickey Arthur being sacked weeks before the Ashes.
Australia's struggles in England were difficult to watch for Ponting, who disliked how new coach Darren Lehmann and his fellow selectors shunted batsmen in and out of the side, and up and down the order, in a vain bid to find a formula for success.
The constant state of flux was unfair on the younger batsmen, said Ponting, who had played as if they had an axe hovering just above their heads.
"Having been there, towards the end of my career, I can fully understand how difficult it is to play when you think you're getting close to the end," he said.
Pundits in both hemispheres lined up to stick the boot in to the visitors, rating Clarke's team among the worst Australian sides to tour England. Few have given them much hope in the return series.
The man nicknamed 'Punter' sees shorter odds for an upset, however, and felt satisfied Australia had recovered some of their traditional "niggle" in their dealings with England, despite the one-sided scoreline.
"Looking back through my time as player, the Australian teams tended to play their best when the cricket was like that," he said.
"I think there was a little bit there in the last series just watching from the sidelines.
"It seemed like it was back to playing test cricket the way we like to play it, the way we all like to see it without it being over the top.
"There is a lot of negativity around about this current Australian team, how bad they are, and I honestly don't believe it's that bad," Ponting added.
"Just to get a couple of wins under our belt, get a bit of that winning feeling around the dressing room, things can actually turn around pretty quickly."
(Editing by John O'Brien)