Australia v South Africa, 1st Test, Perth, 5th day December 21, 2008

Australia's aura fades away

The attack that was once the most threatening in the world is now no more than moderate © PA Photos

The full extent of Australia's decline over the past year has been hard to gauge until now. Wins against weak opponents have masked the problems but a demoralising series-opening loss to South Africa in Perth has brought them crashing down to earth, so much so that Ricky Ponting doesn't know if his batsmen or his bowlers are the bigger concern. It is a most unpleasant position to be in.

In the lead-up to the series there were hints that Australia felt vulnerable. Ponting and Tim Nielsen tried to pile the pressure on South Africa by raising their poor past history against Australia. It wasn't on the level of pre-series bluster that Graeme Smith had launched in 2005-06 but it brought back some of those memories. Smith later admitted he was trying to deflect attention away from his own developing side and, with such an evolving Australia line-up, it looked like Australia had hatched a similar plan this season.

It didn't work then and it hasn't worked now. The fact is that Australia are not the side they were and their No. 1 ranking is more a legacy of their past dominance than a reflection of their current situation. They beat New Zealand and West Indies this year but those are frail teams and they are currently trying to bore each other into submission in Napier. A 2-0 loss in India was more revealing, as was Australia's narrow escape at home against India last summer.

The attack that was once the most threatening in the world is now no more than moderate. Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath have been replaced by a succession of bowlers, who have gone through the selection revolving door. Currently Jason Krejza and Peter Siddle are being given opportunities and as much as Ponting has insisted the men are up to Test standard, it is unrealistic to expect a pair with a combined 39 first-class matches' experience to be matchwinners.

Neither of them took a wicket in the second innings at the WACA, when Australia could not defend 414. Siddle alternated between bowling too short and too full and South Africa rarely looked worried by him. Krejza was never going to replicate his 12 wickets on debut in Nagpur and while he bowled some potentially wicket-taking balls with bounce and turn, he also sent down some of the longest hops since Qantas started its kangaroo route from Sydney to London. It was a joint effort that has forced Ponting to reassess his opinion of them.

"They're kids really that haven't got a real solid foundation if you like of first-class cricket under their belts," Ponting said. "So maybe my expectation on those couple has to go down a little bit. But they're out there playing for Australia and I expect them to be able to do a job."

Ponting readily conceded that Mitchell Johnson was the only man who really looked like getting wickets. He picked up 11 for the match but it wasn't nearly enough. Brett Lee did not bowl badly as such but one strike for the game was an underwhelming result from the man who is supposed to lead the attack.

"His pace and swing probably weren't there this game but he actually bowled pretty good areas and kept things as tight as or probably tighter than anyone else in our side right through the game," Ponting said. "But saying that, that's probably not his role in our team either and we expect him to have some impact with the new ball and that wasn't there in this game."

There are also concerns over the batting. Matthew Hayden's future is unclear after another failure, Michael Hussey is not in danger but needs to regain his form and Ponting's own contributions are becoming less reliable. Several Australian batsmen threw their wickets away with streaky shots in Perth, including Andrew Symonds and Michael Clarke in both innings, and it was a trend that left Ponting fuming.

They are problems Australia need to solve quickly. Following a return-tour of South Africa, Australia head to England to defend the Ashes. Ponting has lost the urn once and it would be an irredeemable stain on his legacy if he handed it over again. The immediate job is to come back from 1-0 down to win a three-Test series. It is something Australia have never achieved in 130 years of Test cricket. For a team whose aura is fading by the day, it might just be too great a task.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo