An empire in disarray

Australian cricket's fortress hasn't just cracked - that has been happening for the past 12 months - it has now officially imploded. The foundations began to shake during last summer's home series against India, the roof caved in with the 2-0 loss in India and the whole structure has collapsed with Australia's first home series defeat in 16 years.

An empire that was until recently the envy of the world is in disarray. Australia are carrying injured players, out-of-form stars and new boys still learning their trade. The burden is too much for the few men still performing consistently - Ricky Ponting can do only so much. The time has come for a conscious rebuilding phase.

As Ponting tried to single-handedly rescue Australia with 101 and 99, it must have become painfully obvious to him how far his side had fallen. Never would he have expected that South Africa could come back from a seemingly unwinnable position - at stumps on day two their deficit was 196 with three wickets in hand - to triumph so convincingly.

They have won their first series in Australia and have gone within a match of leapfrogging Australia in the Test rankings. Soon Ponting will not be able to fall back on his oft-repeated response to questions over the side's decline - "we are still No. 1" - although he got the line out one more time after the Melbourne loss.

Replacing legends was never going to be easy but the staggering of retirements was expected to give Australia their best chance of maintaining their dominance. Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer departed after the 2006-07 Ashes, Adam Gilchrist went the following season and Matthew Hayden was anticipated to move on after next year's Ashes in England.

It seemed like a good idea. Bring in some new guys to learn at the top level from the veterans who had mastered Test cricket before those wise heads moved into commentary boxes and fishing boats. For a while it was working: Phil Jaques was a capable replacement for Langer and Brett Lee took over from McGrath as the dangerous spearhead, while Mitchell Johnson learnt about Test cricket.

But the best-laid plans often go awry and what Australia did not count on was several of their established men falling back to earth with a thud. Hayden, once the enforcer of Australia's top order, is at risk of a premature exit. Michael Hussey, who made a Bradman-like start at Test level, is having the leanest run of his career.

Lee is preparing for foot surgery that has spared immediate questions over his lack of wickets, and his colleague Stuart Clark has had an elbow operation that will keep him out for another couple of months. Nathan Hauritz has done little to prove he is a Test-quality spinner.

Andrew Symonds is heading for knee surgery for a problem that he has carried since Adelaide, and which was brushed aside by the selectors as a non-issue before this Test. His potential replacement, Shane Watson, has been suffering from a back injury since before the South Africa series began, and now faces six months out of the game with stress fractures.

The overall scene raises serious questions about Australia's four-man selection panel. Andrew Hilditch, Merv Hughes, David Boon and Jamie Cox have had an awful year. At a time when trust needed to placed in young talent, they have done more damage than good.

The left-arm spinner Beau Casson was handed a Cricket Australia contract and a ticket to the Caribbean. He made his Test debut and showed some promise only to be overlooked for not one but three other slow bowlers for the next tour of India. Casson is a young man who needs nurturing and the selectors set his progress back by handling him poorly - he returned to New South Wales low on confidence and it showed in his results.

That Cameron White was picked as a specialist spinner in India was just as bad a call. Yet White played all four Tests and the offspinner Jason Krejza was overlooked until the final match, when he took 12 wickets on debut. And where is Krejza now? Playing for Tasmania because he had one bad Test.

After the Melbourne loss Hilditch kept a straight face as he said: "It's not a time for chopping and changing the side. It's a time for supporting our young players as they come through." Hilditch is a solicitor but this statement was not backed by evidence. It has been 15 Tests since Australia have fielded the same XI in consecutive matches. The past year has shown the selectors have a lack of faith not only in their players but also in their own decisions.

It is into this unstable setup that Australia's next generation of Test players will arrive. Doug Bollinger, Andrew McDonald and Ben Hilfenhaus are all dreaming of debuts next week. They must hope to be treated better than the men who have been given opportunities in 2008. The empire has fallen and the time for damage control has passed. It is now about rebuilding from the bottom up.