As Ricky Ponting's toughest year in charge of the Australian team draws to a close he is facing one of the Test matches that could define his captaincy. A loss to South Africa in Melbourne would concede the series and cap off a disappointing year that began with a narrow but controversial series win against India at home and continued with a 2-0 loss in India.
"Yeah probably," Ponting said when asked if 2008 had been his hardest year. "Whenever the team doesn't have the success that we all want to have then as a captain your responsibility is to cop whatever criticism comes your way.
"The buck stops with me as far as our performance is concerned. I think we've all been a little bit disappointed with the way some of the results have gone. I think we all knew at the start of this year that we had some very tough cricket ahead of us."
Ponting is leading the side through a period of uncertainty the likes of which the country has rarely seen since Allan Border's reign. Ponting was the first Australian leader to give up the Ashes since Border's men regained the prize in 1989; he is desperate to avoid being the captain to lose Australia's first series at home since Border's side went down to West Indies in 1992-93.
After South Africa's brilliant win in Perth, Australia were left in the unfamiliar situation of being 1-0 in a three-Test series. It is a position they have never recovered from for a series win in their 120 years of Test cricket. For such a comeback to occur this time, Ponting needs his senior men to lead the way.
Matthew Hayden and Brett Lee have come under fire during the week as both men have struggled to find their trademark spark and Ponting is desperate for the pair to lift themselves on the biggest stage. He also needs stronger contributions from the rest of the batting line-up. Much was made of the failure of Australia's bowlers, Mitchell Johnson aside, in Perth but it was the inability of the batsmen to build an impregnable lead that frustrated Ponting as much as anything.
In the first innings they wobbled to 3 for 15; in the second they teetered to 7 for 162. On a pitch where South Africa chased down 414 with six wickets in hand it was not a good enough effort. Ponting was at least happy that the batting problems did not seem to stem from technical failures or lack of ability.
"The top-order batting in both innings left a little bit to be desired so that's one area that we all want to tighten up," Ponting said. "For us as a batting group there's some positives that we can take out of that, knowing that we all did get off to some good starts and probably mentally more than anything is where we let ourselves down. That's to be changed this week."
The experienced batting line-up is even more important in a side whose attack is relatively young. Peter Siddle has kept his place and will play his first Test at his home ground the MCG, despite taking only one wicket in Perth, while Nathan Hauritz has been added for his second Test of the summer.
The inexperienced men will be under intense pressure at the MCG, where the crowds are massive and vocal. The significance of the Test was not lost on Ponting; the next five days could either end Australia's dominance at home or prove their fighting qualities have not deserted them.
"There's no doubt that this is a big one and generally the Australian team under adversity or when a big moment comes up or a big game comes up, we generally bring out our best performance," Ponting said. "You can argue last week that it probably wasn't our best performance in a big game and maybe it wasn't … now it's about making sure that everything does work out for us this week."