Sydney:For much of the last 14 years, Australian cricket confidently challenged other nations to match their lofty standards as they went on long unbroken winning streaks.
In that time Australian teams twice racked up record 16 consecutive Test victories (1999-2001 and 2005-08) and it seemed the golden era would never end.
But as much of the global financial downturn was forecast, so too were the portents of Australian cricket's coming demise. Much of it can be traced back to the retirements of champion bowlers, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath, and opening batsman Justin Langer two years ago. That triggered the break up of a formidable team.
Record-setting wicketkeeper Adam Gilchrist pulled up stumps a year ago and prolific opener Matthew Hayden announced his retirement last month.
It had the effect of a collapsing house of cards. Suddenly, the Australian team found matches harder to win, player and administrative inadequacies surfaced. The golden era was well and truly over.
Last October, before the tour to India, the Australians were comfortably ahead of their rivals on the ICC Test and One-Day cricket rankings.
But a calamitous summer season of just three wins in nine Tests and six defeats in 10 ODIs has toppled Australian cricket from its pedestal.
The Australians are barely hanging on to their number one Test status as they prepare to tackle South Africa in a three-Test series, while the Proteas have overtaken them as the leading ODI team after a 4-1 drubbing in Australia.
Ricky Ponting's team even needed intervening weather in the final rain-hit match to prevent them from losing a home five-match ODI series to the often patronised New Zealanders.
Cricket observers are comparing the current gloom to the dark period of the 1980s when Allan Border was entrusted with rebuilding an Australian team, shattered by retirements of Test greats, Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh in January 1984.
Border assumed captaincy and was the bulwark as he endured just 32 wins in 93 Tests to help Australian cricket turn corner before passing on baton to Mark Taylor in 1994.
Ponting, classed along with Sachin Tendlukar as contemporary cricket's greatest batsman, is now shouldering the burden that Border carried for a decade.
He is in charge of a work in progress. Half the 14-man touring team to South Africa are Test novices and are missing a huge chunk of experience through injury absence or otherwise of Brett Lee, Stuart Clark, Shane Watson and Andrew Symonds.
Yet Ponting has his detractors. He has been under fire for his decision-making, notably on the 2005 Ashes tour of England and his bizarre choice not to press for an improbable victory against India at Nagpur last November and with it the consequent loss of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy.
Australia's cricket prestige has also taken a hit through player antics.
All-rounder Symonds was ruled ineligible for selection on consecutive overseas tours for his erratic behaviour. He was axed from Australia's tour of India after opting to go fishing rather than attend a compulsory team meeting. He was again fined and not considered for the South African trip after he slurringly called New Zealand wicketkeeper Brendon McCullum 'a lump of s---' during a radio interview.
Symonds was ordered to undergo further psychological counselling before he would again be considered for selection for Australia.
Captain-in-waiting Michael Clarke made the wrong headlines when he was grabbed by the throat by teammate Simon Katich over a disagreement about when to sing the traditional late-night boozy post-victory team song after beating South Africa in January's dead rubber Sydney Test.
Australia's selectors have been slated for their team selections and there were queries why team coach Tim Nielsen received a contract extension through until the end of the 2011 World Cup.
The rest of the cricket world may be rejoicing in Australian cricket's agonies, but the question that anxious fans here are asking is: how long do they have lower their expectations of their once all-conquering team?