All empires crumble. Some hang around longer than others and most, at their zenith, seem as though they will be there for ever. But they go only one way eventually, and in central India yesterday there was the unmistakable sense of walls tumbling down.
Australia lost the fourth Test in Nagpur by 172 runs and with it the series by 2-0. The Border-Gavaskar Trophy might not have quite the history of the Ashes – about 120 years less of it – but Australia were not exactly desperate to surrender it, thinking that as they had the little old terracotta urn, so the big new silver cup hardly mattered. It is much easier to lose in India than to win, as England may shortly discover, but Australia do not go anywhere with that thought in mind. They play to win, or at least they did.
They have lost occasional Test series in recent years, six out of the last 54 going back to their last home defeat in 1993, four of them to India. So maybe this was again a mere blip, another interruption to Australia's long hegemony in all forms of cricket. But it did not feel like that. It felt like Australia, so far ahead of the rest for so long, were coming back to the pack and quickly.
In Nagpur, a place renowned for its oranges, they ended up looking like lemons and widespread regret may be difficult to discern. Nobody should doubt their durability and excellence, and their particular stock of talent means that they have been able to change the way the game is played. But the swagger that has often been attached will prompt the thought that they had it coming. If the demise is not inevitable it will be damnably difficult to halt.
There will be plenty of opportunity to gather further evidence in the months ahead. Ricky Ponting's side – if it remains Ponting's side, that is – have what should be two routine Tests against New Zealand coming up, followed by series home and away against South Africa, bristling with improvement, and then the Ashes in England next summer.
If nothing else, they will be exhausted by the time they get here and they might be washed up as well. England would possibly prefer to beat an Australian side still on top of their game, but they should not be too fussed. After previous reversals, Australia have always regrouped. The most obvious example of this, partly because it had not involved being beaten on the subcontinent, followed the Ashes rubber of 2005. They could hardly believe what had happened and until yesterday it had not happened since.
Ponting, then in the formative stages of his captaincy, having taken over from Steve Waugh only eight months previously, was so hurt by the experience that he took it personally. Every fibre of his being went into plotting revenge and Australia unfurled victory after victory until, in late 2006 and early 2007, Ponting and the team achieved their objective: England were beaten 5-0.
The sustaining of empires can be more complicated and perplexing than their construction. They depend on cooperation and the power at your disposal. During and immediately after the humiliation of England, which forced a wholesale and equally humiliating review of their game by the Old Enemy, Australia lost four leading players: Damien Martyn, Justin Langer, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. A year later, Adam Gilchrist was gone.
Martyn and Langer were class acts, world-class acts, but in the case of McGrath, Warne and Gilchrist you were talking about three of the best players with their skills there had ever been – fast bowler, leg-spinner and wicketkeeper/batsman. From then on it was always going to be tough for Ponting. There were signs against India at home 11 months ago and then in the West Indies that subjugation was no longer as straightforward as it had been: ie, if in doubt, ask Shane or Glenn to have a go.
And now Ponting is fighting for his job and Australia must recognise that no matter how good your coaching structures or sunny your climate, cricketing excellence does not necessarily follow. Ponting was lambasted for losing to England in 2005, but the differences then were that he was still learning the job and he had those aforementioned great players at his disposal.
He will do well to survive this. He has had an ultimately indifferent series with the bat. The dominating, dogged 123 he made in the opening match was succeeded by 143 runs in the next six innings, culminating yesterday in a lame run-out as Australia folded. But it was his captaincy on the fourth day which drew the critics' most venomous sting. When Australia had somehow manoeuvred themselves into a possible winning position – India were 166 for 6, still only 252 ahead – he bowled occasional bowlers: Cameron White, Mike Hussey, Michael Clarke. India profited not only in the scoring of runs but because they were not being attacked. Ponting excused this yesterday, saying he felt that the bowlers could have caused difficulties and that he was behind the required over rate.
All series over rates had been woeful and when it was in the balance Ponting was claiming he needed to avoid one of the miserable fines imposed under International Cricket Council regulations, or at worst, a one-match ban against New Zealand. This itself was so un-Australian as almost to demand the sack by fellow Australians.
Crowds were much too low, with grounds never more than half full and usually three-quarters empty. This is extremely worrying for the future of Test cricket and when on the third day of the last match Australia went from 189 for 2 to 355 all out (the day yielding 116 runs in 86.4 overs, with India bowling wide of the off stump with eight fielders packed on that side of that wicket) the tempting reaction for Test worshippers was: "Bring on the Indian Premier League."
This is a different Australia and a different India. The home side looked better balanced and, although they too are losing iconic players in Anil Kumble and Sourav Ganguly, there looked to be men to carry the torch in Gautam Gambhir and Amit Mishra.
In the end it was all too much for the tourists to cope with, having only four players with experience of Indian conditions. Of those Matthew Hayden is barely doing more than surviving: two fifties were easily counteracted by six scores under 30 and, at 37, he is raging against the dying of the light.
Australia might, just, generally be able to scrape together enough runs, but not in the imposing fashion of yore. The taking of enough wickets embellishes their problems. Mitchell Johnson advanced but Brett Lee declined. In the final match a 25-year-old off-spinner of Czech and Polish parentage, Jason Krejza, took 12 wickets. He gave the ball a rip but bowled far too many balls to make the batsmen's eyes stand on stalks. In Australia they knew it probably meant trouble. "If Krejza is the answer, what's the question?" went the line.
His estimable first-innings analysis of 8 for 215 still represented the most runs ever conceded by a bowler on his Test debut, though since the previous record for an Australian was held by one Shane Warne – 1 for 150 against India in 1992 – there might be hope. For Australia to hang on to what they believe is rightfully theirs, Krejza will probably have to become Warne. Either that, or the man himself will have to return.
Depressed Down Under: What the papers said
The Australian (Malcolm Conn) "In what must surely be Ricky Ponting's worst day as national captain he may have cost Australia the Border-Gavaskar Trophy by attempting to save himself from suspension."
The Age (Peter Roebuck) "To an almost bizarre degree, Ponting lost the plot. It is impossible to explain, let alone excuse, the tactics pursued by the Australia think tank."
The Daily Telegraph (Jon Pierik) "Ricky Ponting had every reason to hang his head in shame last night after allowing India to escape the noose in the crunch fourth Test."
The Mercury (Tasmania) "Ponting's call was arguably the worst of his 48 Tests in charge, and he was under siege last night."
Ashes Countdown: How they might line up
A lot can happen between now and the first Ashes Test, which starts on 8 July next year, but this is how the two sides could look:
Kevin Pietersen (capt) South African-born and raised captain, already an Ashes hero. This means more to him than any Englishman.
Alastair Cook Probable second Ashes series for the still boyish left-hander.
Andrew Strauss Vulnerable left-hander. Has tasted success and disappointment.
Ian Bell Time for English's most talented batsmen to bloom – or fade away.
Michael Vaughan An old hero and former captain recalled for his runs and his wisdom.
Andrew Flintoff Battering ram all-rounder will crave vengeance after hammering in 2006-7.
Matt Prior Battled to reclaim place. This might be the right time for him.
Stuart Broad Needs to be more consistent but he is quick enough and gets bounce.
Stephen Harmison If the robust, rational, determined Steve turns up, anything could happen.
James Anderson Swing may make him a key figure.
Monty Panesar Likely to be the best spinner on either side.
From left field: Ravi Bopara If the selectors think he is a man for the future, that could/should be these Ashes.
Michael Clarke (capt) From Pup to old dog, Clarke is primed to follow Ricky Ponting – and could be found needing a lead.
Phil Jacques The left-hander has waited a long time for chance. He knows the conditions.
Simon Katich Has been constrained by Test cricket. England know his weaknesses.
Ricky Ponting Remotivated after loss of captaincy but hunger may not be as great.
Mike Hussey Could be England's most formidable opponent.
Shane Watson In neither department is he quite the all-rounder Australia need.
Brad Haddin Donning Adam Gilchrist's gloves is extremely daunting.
Mitchell Johnson Left-arm fast swing bowler will pose problems.
Jason Krejza Feisty off-spinner who must and will not be allowed to settle.
Shaun Tait Back after break. Raw pace is potent weapon.
Stuart Clark A handful on English pitches.
From left field: Shane Warne If Australia get desperate, the legendary blond may be their only hope.