At Melbourne, December 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 2008. South Africa won by nine wickets. Toss: Australia.
The empire had already crumbled by the time Hashim Amla stroked the winning runs off his pads to seal South Africa's first-ever series victory in Australia. For the home side it was not so much the scale of the defeat but the manner that was so shocking, and at the end Ponting stood amid the rubble with nothing to show for his determined knocks of 101 and 99 but the stigma of being the first Australian captain since Allan Border against West Indies in 1992-93 to preside over a home series defeat.
Few Australians could recall a more dispiriting day's cricket in those 16 years than the third at Melbourne, when Duminy and Steyn - a remarkable rookie and a genuine tailender - humiliated the undermanned and inexperienced bowling attack. They orchestrated a stunning, series-defining turnaround, batting for 238 minutes and 382 deliveries for a partnership of 180, the third-highest ninth-wicket stand in Test history…and Steyn was not done. While the Australians laboured to prise out 11 wickets in the match, Steyn captured ten on his own with high-class pace and swing.
For the second time in a fortnight, Australia gave up a winning position. Some blamed the selectors, who shuffled the deckchairs by replacing the expensive Jason Krejza with a safer but less venomous off-spinner in Nathan Hauritz, and bringing the Tasmanian swing bowler Ben Hilfenhaus into the squad but leaving him out of the starting XI. Lee breaking his left foot was an undeniable case of bad luck, but the mid-Test injury to the struggling spearhead exposed the selectors' bad judgment in choosing a lame Symonds, who they knew would be unable to bowl his mediumpacers. South Africa, observing panic and confusion in the Australian camp, fielded an unchanged team, and insult was added to Australian injury when twelfth man Shane Watson, who had roamed the boundary in place of the injured Lee on the third day, appeared on television the next morning to announce a stress fracture in his back.
Ponting had called on his senior players to step up, and he led the way. He survived a wonderful over from Steyn just before lunch on Boxing Day, when he was squared up and dropped in the slips by McKenzie on 24. It was a dreadful drop, and Ponting went on to an imperious century, his 37th in Tests, passing 1,000 runs at the MCG on the way. He was out to the last ball before tea. Though not everyone followed the captain's example, Clarke's mature 88 from 208 balls and another strong show from the tail lifted the home side to 394. It looked a formidable total when local hero Peter Siddle roared into the Test with three top-order wickets on the second afternoon, and South Africa stumbled to 184 for seven.
However, the irrepressible tourists lifted themselves off the canvas a second time. There was no hint of panic about Duminy during his delightful 166, just self-assurance, precise strokeplay and trust in his partners. His composure in transforming a daunting deficit into a 65-run lead highlighted the calamity unfolding around him. Australia managed one wicket in the first five hours of the third day, when Harris was caught in the deep off part-time trundler Hussey. Three catches went down, none more embarrassing than when Hussey lost a high ball in the sun, and hopped around as if on hot coals until it landed a metre behind him at deep mid-on. Ponting waited until shortly before tea to introduce Symonds for some gentle off-breaks, and did not use Katich's wrist-spin at all. In a post-play interview, his deputy Clarke admitted the onfield leaders were out of ideas, and referred questions about the bowling selections to the skipper. South Africa's last three partnerships produced 275 runs - only two fewer than the Australian top six.
There was no second-innings batting revival. Hayden made it to 23 before a loose shot to Steyn undid him, and Hussey's horrors continued when a nasty bouncer from Morkel was caught off his helmet, leaving Ponting to play another lone hand. "It meant a lot to me to try and stand up, hold my end up and lead from the front," he said after his agonising dismissal, pushing a Morkel slower ball to short cover for 99. "We have all got to dig as deep as we can tomorrow and try and find some way to dislodge a few of their batsmen and try and get a few nerves going through their change-room." He was only the second man, after Geoff Boycott for England against West Indies at Port-of-Spain in 1973-74, to score a century and 99 in the same Test.
It was wishful thinking, for the days of reopening South African scars were over. Lee bowled on a fractured front foot - which got him into trouble when he bowled McKenzie with a no-ball in the shadow of stumps on the fourth evening - but his valour was in vain, for the remaining 153 runs were chewed up for the loss of just one wicket, a dubious lbw call against Smith after he had taken his run-aggregate for 2008 to 1,656, the third-highest in any calendar year. Before dusk settled on the MCG, and after some celebratory beers, the history-making captain led his team back to the middle of the arena, pointed to the empty grandstands and bellowed several renditions of "You're not singing any more". They weren't singing in the Australian dressing-room, either.
Man of the Match: Dale Steyn