Australia can find a way out of the darkness
There is no doubt as to the severity of this beating. Australia came to Hobart believing they were the cricketing equal of South Africa, and have had that belief crushed. Steve Smith was quite beside himself at the television post-match interview; the blood drained from his face, the answers to questions coming in a gentle voice from a mind reeling in shock. The world had closed in on him and there was only darkness. In the dressing room, young men were silent while older sweats went about their efforts at consolation.
Along the corridor, Faf du Plessis sat calm, satisfied but not yet sated: he wants 3-0 on Australian soil. He truly thought these results possible because the once mighty Australian aura has so clearly gone. The recent one-day series confirmed that in his mind. Momentum in sport is overrated, some say; Faf thinks it is the grail. On their own turf the South Africans won five 50-over matches in a row against the reigning world champions and most of them in style and with space to spare. But to win three consecutive Tests down under would be something else. If it happens, the selectors would be tempted to give the job to the stand-in captain job full time.
The gulf between the sides is best represented by the fresher, brighter South African faces and their levels of technique and concentration. Each moment of the two matches in Perth and Hobart has appeared as an opportunity for - in no particular order - Quinton de Kock, Temba Bavuma, Kagiso Rabada, Keshav Maharaj, Stephen Cook and Kyle Abbott. Contrast these players with Joe Burns, Adam Voges, Callum Ferguson and Nathan Lyon, to name but four, who look down at heel. There can be no excuses and neither did Smith suggest any. The hosts have been completely out-thought and outgunned by the visitors. The fallout is spectacular. Nothing like it has been seen since West Indies caused all manner of chaos in the 1980s.
Graeme Smith was in Sydney last week and got stuck in. The Aussies have lost a bit of ticker and are plagued by self-doubt, he said. The Sheffield Shield has lost its clout, he added, and the rotation of players does neither the team, nor the game at large, any good. Nothing like kicking a carcass. Smith was in town to be honoured by the Bradman Foundation, a recognition only afforded four other cricketers from overseas - Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sir Richard Hadlee. Set deep into the memory of all Australians is the sight of Smith, with a broken hand, gladiatorially emerging from the Sydney Cricket Ground pavilion in an attempt to deny Australia a last-gasp victory in a Test series his South African team had already won. It is that sort of ticker he refers to. He nearly pulled it off too.
The self-doubt thing is a product of defeat, there is no avoiding it. Lose enough times and you begin to wonder about your place in the order of things. The surprise is that the Australian selectors have not invested in youth. Older blokes know too much and fear failure; younger blokes embrace it and have a go. The selectors might say that the youth out there has not justified a go, but the options are limited, so they may just as well take a look.
The Sheffield Shield was an easy target for Graeme Smith because of the way in which it has been used as the gallops. Most strikingly, Mitchell Starc bowled 19 overs in the first innings of a Shield match against Queensland and was removed from proceedings thereafter. This sends a bad message across the land, diminishes the country's long-established premier competition, and leads the player to think of himself as someone out of the ordinary. Doug Bollinger, fresh as a daisy, replaced Starc to take four wickets and bowl New South Wales to victory. The Australian Smith may have been glad of Starc's carefully managed workload; the South African Smith could not get his head around such a thing.
As for the rotation of players, well, the Bradman honouree is very clear. The famed cap, romanticised by the modern Australian cricketer - dreamt of by the young and cosied by the old - is handed out too freely. Rotate players and you compromise the dream.
The key for Australian cricket right now is to see an opportunity for itself. Young players ought to replace old and be backed for the summer. There is a return in the failure of the young but only shadows in the failure of the old. As an example, Mitchell Marsh is a terrific young bowler who bats powerfully on his day, but he is not a Test match allrounder - not yet anyway. Let him be free as a fast bowler without reference to his figures with the bat. Marsh M at No. 7 or 8 can be a bolter, ready to terrify any wilting attack.
There is talent sprinkled all around Australian cricket. The trick is to identify desire. It's no good wanting to play sport for your country, you have to need to play sport for your country. It is an achievement born of desperation. The captain should be allowed to take ownership, to be both responsible and accountable. His view of the players around him must be acknowledged and acted upon. He has to be able to feel this need around him, for, more than anyone, he personifies it.
These things are rarely as bad as they seem. In Test cricket diaries, it is only five days since South Africa had been bundled out for 242 in Perth and Australia were 158 for no wicket in response. The right collection of Australian players can win in Adelaide, but their own stars must be aligned. The decision-making around the team has lost its envied clarity. The questions must be: what have we long stood for, where are we now and what do we want to be going forward? Identify the answers and there will be a way out of the darkness soon enough.
Meanwhile, South Africa are basking in the lights. Does the game have any more dazzling a young star than either de Kock or Rabada? Does anyone attract great respect than Hashim Amla, Vernon Philander or Kyle Abbott? In the wake of government-instructed quotas, a destabilised first-class competition and injuries to World XI players, the South Africans are the best possible motivation for the Australians. In essence, the message is this: if you think you can or you think you can't, you are probably right. Faf du Plessis' fine men are proof of that.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK