Adelaide:Ricky Ponting isn't sure whether the situation he'll face over the next three Tests is the biggest challenge of his career. He must quickly realise it is because he is fighting for runs, his team and his captaincy. England's innings demolition of Australia in Adelaide has left the hosts chasing two wins to have any chance of regaining the Ashes. In their current form, one success would be a sea-parting achievement.
Ponting has already lost two Ashes series and if he fails for a third time there will be little sympathy from spectators and selectors. There are major fires burning all around him and he is finding it impossible to put any of them out. Selection issues, the heel injury to Simon Katich, bowlers who can't maintain their line, untrustworthy spinners and the most inconsistent No.6 in the game are among the most prominent concerns. Then there is the blazing issue of his lack of runs.
He is a great batsman who is struggling for impact in situations he used to control. In this game he collected a first-ball duck and 9, taking his tally to 70 in four innings. After the match Ponting was reluctant to single out any of his team-mates for criticism, but piled it on himself. Ponting will be 36 by the end of the Perth Test, so his time is running out.
"Don't worry about winning the games, I've got to make some runs," Ponting said with typical candour. "It's as simple as that." In reality, the situation is much more complex because even if Ponting rushes back into form he will be unable to carry the side unless there are dramatic all-round improvements.
"There's a great challenge for me to score runs but there's a great challenge for me to captain the side well in Perth and give the guys the best chance to get our way back into the series," he said. "We have to win two games, and we have to play good cricket to win a single game."
Over the past seven days there have been only poor performances from Australia. They were in charge for the opening stages in Brisbane but have been swatted aside ever since. Ponting knows this and is doing well to remain relaxed. He speaks confidently about Australia's ability to turn things around even though his words, in public and from team meetings, sound shallow.
"We've been doing a lot of talking about things, about what we want to do and how to change and rectify things, but our actions have been what has let us down so far," he said. "Skills at different times have let us down and we understand that."
The batsmen, including Ponting, started the slide in Adelaide by losing three wickets for two runs on the opening morning on the way to being dismissed for 245. Australia were then able to take only six wickets before England declared at 620. On the final morning the last half-dozen local breakthroughs came for 54 runs as England were handed a 1-0 advantage, which is much more weighty than it looks. The predicted storms arrived at 2pm, but by then the teams were already being packed off to their next destinations.
Easily the most frightening aspect of this result for the Australians was that, unlike the weather, they didn't know it was coming. They thought they were well matched against England and deserved to be favourites, even though they started the campaign on a three-match losing streak, their worst since 1988-89. Instead England played like an outfit on top of the world and Australia did an excellent impression of a group over-rated at No.5.
"Probably not," Ponting said when asked if he'd seen the result coming. "You probably wouldn't have thought so after the first three days in Brisbane. I thought the way everything was heading for us up there, it looked like we were playing some good cricket and we were on the right track. We had a group of players together skill-wise who were going to be good enough to win the series."
The scenario has been brutally altered and the Australians now face the extremely unusual situation of having to hang on at home. South Africa beat the hosts here two summers ago for the first series win by an overseas side since 1992-93. Losing has since become a habit for Ponting's men, who haven't won a Test since Lord's in July. Now their fortress is ruined.
"It probably looks as if we are going to have to be at our absolute best if we are going to work our way back into the series," Ponting said. "The challenges are there, the pressure's on the players just to make sure we give it our best shot for the next three weeks."
Most of the squad will have time off before the unit for the third Test is named on Friday. Changes will have to be made and Ponting was due to meet with Andrew Hilditch, the chairman of selectors, to pick through the remains.
Over the past year Ponting has lost power in his batting, his leadership and his sway with the decision makers. The era is moving on and, sadly, a true great is being left behind.