The last rites amid ashes of an empire

A first home series defeat in 16 years leaves Ricky Ponting's men in tatters, writes Stephen Brenkley

Australia are finished. Somebody had to preside over the collapse of the empire. It fell to Ricky Ponting. Perhaps this was not fair. The captain of Australia, who had inherited a great side and made them greater still despite moments of adversity, did his utmost to keep the marauding hordes at bay.

But it was not enough to repel South Africa. It was far from enough. Ponting made 101 and 99 in the second Test in Melbourne but the tourists won it yesterday, at a canter, by nine wickets and with it the three-match series by 2-0. Australia were beaten at home for the first time in 16 years. The nature of both victories all but defied belief. In Perth, South Africa chased down 414, the second-highest winning fourth-innings total in Test history. In Melbourne, after the second day, the tourists were still 196 behind and had only three first-innings wickets left.

Australia remain No 1 in the world rankings, as Ponting was forced, almost desperately, to point out. But nobody, perhaps not even Ponting, can truly believe that any longer. They were held at home by India a year ago, beaten by India in India only two months ago – and now this.

Odds about their retaining the Ashes next summer are bound to lengthen. By then, with a return series in South Africa still to be played, it might be all they have. Although the wisdom of suggesting the Aussies only have two Tests in the English summer with Bangladesh having five may be doubtful, it is probably worth it. Australia are no pushovers but are there for the taking.

There were times when it seemed Australia were invincible, an opinion to which Australia themselves, through preparation, method and sheer outrageous conviction continually added credence. But they demonstrated above all that none of the above can legislate for the simple loss of great cricketers. Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne went more or less together, along with Justin Langer. Adam Gilchrist followed a year later. It was too much.

Ponting was candid enough to concede yesterday that global supremacy had officially ended. "We've had an amazing run as a team," he said. "We have dominated world cricket for a long period of time. I'm still very positive that, with some of these younger guys coming on, in a few years' time we can get back up there and be dominating world cricket again. It's going to take a little while. You can't expect young guys to come in and have sustained success. The younger guys are generally the ones who lack consistency."

But this was precisely the sort of situation that Australia set out to guard against when they lost to England in 1986-87. Their cricket was stagnating, interest was low and crowds lower. Under Allan Border, they rebuilt and became hard-nosed, implacable opponents.

Border was replaced by Mark Taylor and, lo, along came Warne and McGrath, two of the most accomplished players of all time. Taylor was some captain: Australia were imbued with the belief that they could win from any position by playing attacking cricket of a like never witnessed before. The baton passed to Steve Waugh. They became better still, though the arrogance in the swagger became less endearing. When Waugh departed, Ponting was the natural successor. So it went on. There were debates about where they stood in the list of great times but there had never been such cricketing omnipotence.

In England in 2005 in the greatest series of all – though Australia also featured in classic modern rubbers in the West Indies and India – there was a blip. But the vengeance was swift and little more than a year later they had redemption in full.

But this is beyond redemption. South Africa, with a team truly representative of their nation and under an admirable captain, Graeme Smith, have ransacked a crumbling edifice.

"It's disappointing when you lose any series," Ponting said. "This one, I think is no different." But then he gave the game away by admitting that there was something crucially different, something that for so long had been unthinkable. "We've been in very strong winning positions in both of the Test matches and when we've needed to put that last couple of nails in the coffin we haven't been able to do that. In fact, we've been a very long way from being able to do that."

Indeed, they have hammered nails into their own coffin. The Australian selectors attracted considerable ire yesterday. They were criticised both for their replacement policy and for remaining too faithful to the remnants of the side of yore, especially the opening batsman Matthew Hayden. "It's not a time for chopping and changing," said their chairman, Andrew Hilditch. "It's a time for supporting young players as they come through." Three uncapped players were immediately included in the squad of 12 for the final Test in Sydney this week. The empire is no more.

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