An empire is crumbling around Ricky Ponting, who in agonising circumstances stands 153 runs away from becoming the first Australian captain in 16 years to preside over a series defeat on home soil.
South Africa will return to the MCG today within touching distance of their first series victory in Australia despite two massive individual efforts from Ponting, whose dramatic dismissal for 99 capped a harrowing year for the skipper.
Ponting's grim humour regarding his own dismissal disappeared as he contemplated how Australia gave up a winning position to the South Africans with their shambolic performance on Sunday, the day the Test unravelled.
"What we saw yesterday is something that none of us are proud of, I don't think. To let an opportunity in a game slip away from us like we did was very disappointing for us all," Ponting said after he succumbed to a slower ball from Morne Morkel and served up a catch to short cover before he could register his second century for the match.
"No one will ever know how much I wanted to do well today as a result of us having a poor day yesterday. All the guys were really keen to try and get out there and make amends with the bat. It meant a lot to me to try and stand up and hold my end up and lead from the front as well as I possibly could. I felt I did a reasonable job of that. I probably should have made more runs in the first innings, and today it would have been nice to be the last man out but it wasn't the case.
"That is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the position that we're in. 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."
Ponting made 101 in the first innings, and his lone hand yesterday after the Proteas' high-class pace attack instigated a top-order collapse enabled the home side to set South Africa a victory target of 183.
"I am actually going to check with the scorers tonight and see if I can trade one run in from the first innings and carry it over into the second innings," Ponting quipped.
There was more trauma to come. Brett Lee took the new ball, knowing the "hot spot" in his front landing foot could turn into a full-scale stress fracture at any moment, but the same foot sent another jolt of pain through the team when Lee clean-bowled struggling opener Neil McKenzie, only for the wicket to be disallowed because of a front-foot no-ball.
South African captain Graeme Smith got the South Africans away to a flying start, racing to 25 from 19 balls and leading the touring side to 0-30 at stumps. Unless the undermanned and under-siege bowlers who conceded a 180-run partnership to a rookie and a tailender on Sunday can perform a fifth-day miracle, Ponting's batting heroics will not be enough to keep the series alive.
Nor will they be enough to shield the captain from criticism about the management of his inexperienced bowlers or the performance of a team fast losing credibility as the world's No.1 Test nation.
"Tonight wasn't the ideal start, taking a wicket off a no-ball," he said.
"We have to get out there tomorrow with an attitude that there is a game on the line, and we have to do everything as well as we can for the remainder of the game to give ourselves the best chance of winning ... In their first innings, we had them 7-190 and there is no reason we can't create something very similar in the second innings. That is the only option we've got. We've got to get out there and give it our best shot ... and hopefully handle some chances, hopefully have a bit of luck and see what happens."
Ponting's individual batting efforts in a struggling side will not be enough, either, to earn the man of the match award, for Steyn will surely be rewarded for his 10 wickets in the match and his staunch 76 in support of batting prodigy JP Duminy to stage Sunday's stunning revival.
Steyn tore through the top order after the Australians resumed at 0-4 overnight. Matthew Hayden played an anxious shot that was caught by Duminy at short extra cover for 23, compounding the veteran's woes.
Steyn produced lovely, late swing to have middle-order pair Andrew Symonds and Brad Haddin caught by the reliable Jacques Kallis at second slip, while Michael Hussey received a poor decision from umpire Aleem Dar, when he was given out caught off his helmet. Ponting had support from Michael Clarke but the vice-captain was guilty of a soft dismissal when he spooned a catch to McKenzie for 29.
The only good news on the horizon for the Australians is the morning showers forecast.
"We have to just execute perfectly tomorrow, which is something we haven't done as well as the South Africans in the first two games," Ponting said.
First innings 394
M Hayden c Duminy b Steyn 23
S Katich c Boucher b Steyn 15
R Ponting c Smith b Morkel 99
M Hussey c Amla b Morkel 2
M Clarke c McKenzie b Steyn 29
A Symonds c Kallis b Steyn 0
B Haddin c Kallis b Ntini 10
B Lee b Kallis 8
M Johnson not out 43
N Hauritz b Kallis 3
P Siddle c Boucher b Steyn 6
Extras (1b, 3lb, 5nb) 9
Total (all out 84.2 overs) 247
Fall: 37, 40, 49, 145, 145, 165, 180, 212, 231, 247
Bowling: D Steyn 20.2-3-67-5 (1nb), M Ntini 14-1-26-1, M Morkel 15-2-46-2 (4nb), P Harris 21-1-47-0, J Kallis 14-1-57-2.
First innings 459
G Smith not out 25
N McKenzie not out 3
Extras (2nb) 2
Total (no wkts off 6 overs) 30
Bowling: B Lee 3-0-17-0 (2nb), P Siddle 3-1-13-0.
- Sydney Morning Herald
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