Matt Somerford Three years ago, after Australia had beaten South Africa in five of six Test matches home and away, Graeme Smith was a broken man. The headstrong Proteas captain had entered the back-to-back three-Test series with lofty ambitions of toppling the world's best team.

Naively, he sought to engage in a war of words with the Australians, quipping that they were "scared of losing in Australia" following their Ashes defeat in England earlier that year.

It did not work. Smith's comments only served to focus the aggression the Australian team had stirring inside following their stinging loss to their old enemy.

During the ensuing months the Aussies were at their uncompromising best, characteristically imposing themselves in all facets of the game - with bat, ball and mouth.

During the second Test in Durban, Smith's mental resistence finally broke. After ICC match referee Chris Broad ordered repair work made on the Kingsmead pitch before the fourth day be undone, at the Australians' request, captain Ricky Ponting taunted Smith by prodding at the affected areas with his bat during his innings.

It prompted a rebuke from Smith, who complained to the umpires. Ponting's response was only to grin back at his opposite number and say: "We get in your head, don't we."

The next day, Shane Warne claimed six for 86 on the wearing track as the Aussies claimed the series.

A week later, the series sweep was completed in Johannesburg, after which Smith confided to Ponting: "Six months' cricket against you blokes, it's just too hard."

In the obligatory tour diary that Australian captains now write, Ponting admitted Smith's confession had enthused his spirit.

"I loved him saying that, because it highlighted what a tough, uncompromising side we've become."

Three years on, Ponting cannot make such claims. Their two defeats to the Proteas on the way to a first home series loss in 16 years have come after holding seemingly-impenetrable positions, the kind of positions of power they would never have relinquished in a former guise.

Most worrying has been their lack of penetration with the ball, highlighted by their meek submission in Perth when South Africa cruised to the second-highest run-chase in Test history, 414, for the loss of just four wickets.

The Australians' inability to take 20 wickets in a match had surfaced in India, but, on home soil the problem has literally come home to roost.

Brett Lee's mantle as the spearhead of the attack looks shaky. In the series against South Africa and India, when his experience has been needed most, he has claimed just nine wickets at an average of 82.44. In the absence of the injured Stuart Clark, young Queenslander Mitchell Johnson has shown glimpses of his potential. But with Lee failing to fire, resting the burden of pressure on his 17-Test cap shoulders is fraught with danger.

The spinner's role is also clearly unresolved, for which the Australian selectors should bear the brunt of criticism. That they would hand Beau Casson a central contract and give him just one Test to prove himself is laughable.

Even more astounding was then to select Cameron White as a specialist spinner in India ahead of Casson, despite the Victoria captain admitting he reluctantly bowled himself in domestic cricket.

Bryce McGain, Jason Krejza and latterly Nathan Hauritz have all ridden the spinner's merry-go-round in recent months. None of them has played back-to-back Tests.

On the batting front, Ponting has stood head and shoulders above the rest. While Matthew Hayden's career is winding down, Mike Hussey's stalling and Michael Clarke suffering from a severe case of irresponsible strokeplay, the captain has proven himself as the yardstick by which the rest of the team must be measured.

For that reason, it is inappropriate for criticism regarding his leadership capabilities to have been dragged up.

He is every bit an Australian captain - aggressive, enthusiastic, dogged, supremely talented and always in the thick of the action. He baits opposition teams as Australian captains do. Most importantly, he is the team's best player.

Accusations about his poor body language during South Africa's run-chase in Perth were not unreasonable; it was the mark of a fiercely competitive man who hates losing. He is a true champion, with greatness already bestowed upon him. In a time not long ago, he captained a team of men who could lay claim to similar status. But not any more.

Ponting's body language in Perth can be traced to a captain coming to terms with that. He is no longer in the elite company of Warne, Glenn McGrath or Adam Gilchrist. With those players in the side, his job was far easier.

Following Australia's unbeaten run to last year's World Cup, outgoing coach John Buchanan remarked that he no longer needed to coach the team. "I only needed to come in, change the gear shift and go again," he remarked.

No-one argued with him. Ponting's house was in order. But retirements have meant a change in tact is now required and Ponting has at least shown signs he is ready to embrace that fact following the defeat in Melbourne.

"We've dominated world cricket for a long period of time. I'm still very positive and very sure with some of the young guys coming on that in a few years' time we can get back up there and be dominating world cricket again," he said.

"A lot of players in the team aren't accustomed to losing Test matches, let alone Test series. The gap between our best cricket and our worst cricket has been too big, and we have to make that smaller if we want to win the next Test and if we want to stay in that top group of Test-playing nations."

Perhaps though it was his opposite number Smith, finally unshackled of his Australian torment, who summed up their current position.

"The balance of power is evening out in world cricket," he mused.