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Australia in the crucible, past and present

Can Steven Smith find a way to turn his captaincy tenure around like how many Australian captains have done in the past? Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Australian cricket's story is littered with crucible moments; times when the national team has either stood up or flaked out. In the moment, these instances may not seem that important, only gaining resonance through what happens afterwards. Other moments stand out like beacons almost from the second they take place. Whatever is decided at levels above, whatever reviews or appointments take place, the fate rests ultimately with the players.

The third dull, wintry day in Hobart felt like one such day and the next two to follow are no less important. Australia are so far behind South Africa they have only slim hope of getting out of Bellerive without a match and series defeat, but it is vital that they show evidence of improvement. The jobs of many, from the chief executive James Sutherland down to the debutant Callum Ferguson, are on the line.

How much hinges on all this? Remember the words of the coach Darren Lehmann after Australia were bundled out for 85 on day one. Asked about the future, he did not want to think about the consequences of a hiding. "I'll probably tell you in a few days," he said. "Hopefully we fight back really well and the future is bright. We know we've got to get better in a lot of areas, we've always said that. Even four Tests ago when we were No.1. Now we're way away from that."

Each of the past five Australian captains have met moments of similar weight - of both the winning and losing varieties. For Allan Border, perhaps the most resonant was day one of the 1989 Ashes series at Headingley, when he came out to bat after a pair of early wickets on an overcast day and played an innings so brazen it included one six cut hard over backward point - back in the day when that shot was almost unheard of. Sixteen years of Ashes dominance were forged that morning.

Border experienced the other side towards the end of his career, when he and his team were unable to take a chance to defeat West Indies in a series for the first time in 17 years. A chase of 186 to win in Adelaide was left too much in the hands of the tail, leaving Australia one run short of victory, and Border to hurl his "worry ball" so hard into the dressing room floor that it rebounded to strike the ceiling.

For Mark Taylor, a personal turning point did not dovetail with team success, but foreshadowed it. By the time of the second innings of the first Ashes Test in 1997, he had gone 19 innings without passing 50, and a previously happy and dominant team were feeling the strain. Rolled by Darren Gough and Andy Caddick, then clattered to all parts of Edgbaston by Graham Thorpe and Nasser Hussain, Australia started their second innings 360 runs behind.

Without a hundred, Taylor's captaincy would have been at an end, and in the early overs the tension was close to unbearable. But in the company of Matthew Elliott and Greg Blewett, he carved out an "ugly" hundred, adding respectability to the scoreboard and allowing the team enough breathing space to regroup and ultimately win the series. Taylor led the team for another two years.

Again in England, Steve Waugh's captaincy came under enormous pressure during the 1999 World Cup, following on from a surprising 2-2 Test series draw against West Indies in the Caribbean. The team was not happy, Waugh and Shane Warne butting heads, and losses to New Zealand and Pakistan left the team needing to win each of their last seven matches of the tournament or face elimination at every stage. Waugh's response, most pointedly in a pair of nail-biters over South Africa, was to make critical runs. Warne, by now toying with retirement, overcame doubts about a shoulder still regaining strength after surgery to rip the ball in his former fashion. The World Cup was won, and Waugh stayed on as leader until 2004.

Despite a winning record overall, Ricky Ponting's leadership is remembered most for a pair of Ashes defeats. The first in 2005 was said to have swung on Glenn McGrath's injured ankle, but Ponting's call to send England in even after he knew he would be without his best pace bowler proved much the more fateful juncture, leading ultimately to the loss of the urn for the first time since Border's 1989 redemption.

Move ahead to 2010-11, and a home Ashes series now viewed as one sided may actually have pivoted on the loss of two wickets either side of the first drinks on Boxing Day. Phillip Hughes and Ponting were prospering well enough in front of a mighty crowd when the former skewed Tim Bresnan to point, before next over the captain snicked Chris Tremlett into the slips. The former coach Tim Nielsen still gnashes his teeth about that one and all the ignominy to follow - it proved to be Ponting's last Test as captain.

Michael Clarke's leadership tale always teetered between triumph and disaster with little in between. The pivotal point leading to the former came when Mitchell Johnson took the ball just before lunch on day two of the first 2013-14 Ashes Test at the Gabba, worrying out Jonathan Trott as per team plans and sending momentum flooding to Australia. The latter, perhaps harder to isolate, was arguably the second afternoon of the Cardiff Test in 2015, when a series of squandered starts sentenced Australia to an opening defeat in a series they would never lead. Clarke, fighting his own inner battles, was en route to retirement from that moment.

So it is that Steven Smith's men find themselves in the crucible at Bellerive. They enjoyed a far better day on Monday than Saturday, even if Quinton de Kock's impersonation of Adam Gilchrist gathered impressive depth. The batting spine shown by Smith and Usman Khawaja, in particular, demonstrated a level of self-knowledge about where this team now stands after four consecutive losses and the distinct prospect of a fifth. The heaviness of expectation was not lost on Josh Hazlewood.

"Extremely important I think," he said. "Everyone knows we need to improve and improve quickly. We talk amongst ourselves and everyone knows we need to improve. So I think it's about everyone individually doing what they can on or off the field, and important to do it as a group as well. Hopefully it happens on the field. We're obviously a pretty tight group, we play a lot of cricket together and we're on the road together a lot. Everyone gets along fantastically on and off the field, but now's an important time to stick together and even be tighter."

Australian cricket has never been richer or better resourced. The national team's players have never been better paid nor looked after. There are problems with scheduling, and issues of coaching philosophy as it relates to the business of batting. But Australia's Test team is ultimately in the hands of the players who shape it, through their own skill and presence of mind. The next two days will, once again, tell that tale.