In future decades, cricket historians may view December 21 2008 as the day when the era of Australian dominance, which had begun almost fourteen years previously, ended. Losing (and convincingly) in India was one thing - but Australia had suffered defeat there even during their 2001 peak. But failing to defend 414 in a home Test - at Perth at that - feels like a seminal, epoch-ending moment. And it was some failure - Australia were completely thrashed, three-quarters of their bowling attack utterly impotent. Sports pundits are more prone than most to hyperbole, but on this occasion it really does seem justified.
Many have recently rushed to claim India as the world's best side, following winning three and losing none of their last six Tests against Australia, and then exhibiting the confidence and skill to chase down 387 against England with consummate ease. Yet the argument does not stand up to close scrutiny. Sandwiched between their two series with Australia was a scrapped 1-1 draw at home to South Africa and then a 2-1 defeat in Sri Lanka. It seems a little premature to label them number one yet, though the startling recent progress of Gambhir, Sharma and Mishra suggests that they soon could be the world's best side.
Yet just now it is South Africa who have the most right to claim themselves as the new number ones, having so spectacularly defeated Australia on their home patch. It feels like the ultimate knockout blow. And it has been a long time coming - South Africa have won eight of their last nine Test series, including victories in England and Pakistan. Even in the exception, the draw in India, they did themselves great credit, especially in the light of Australia's woes there.
Two of South Africa's recent wins must rank amongst their ten finest of all time. In the remarkable run-chases at Edgbaston and Perth, Graeme Smith led from the front, compiling two masterful fourth-innings hundreds. After his two double centuries against England in 2003 he went five years without reaching 70 against either England or Australia. But with these two centuries in 2008 Smith has proved he is much more than a flat-track bully. Both innings were characterised by a controlled aggression. Smith has mellowed since the humiliating discrepency between his words and deeds during the 2005/06 clashes with Australia. He is a towering presence in world cricket, an innate leader of men.
While there are slight doubts over Jacques Kallis's long-term form (partially allayed by a vital pair of 50s at Perth), there have been vast improvements throughout the side of late. Neil McKenzie is seldom aesthetically pleasing but invariably solid. Hashim Amla, who looked out of his depth during his entry to Test cricket, is now a superb, counter-attacking number three - and one of the game's true stylists to boot. And AB de Villiers, the boy wonder who could have represented his country in any number of sports but wasted many a promising start through recklnessness, is gaining maturity fast. His unbeaten, match-winning century suggests that, after four years in which a lack of patience prevented fulfillment of his promise, consistency may have arrived.
As apparent yet again, there is something fashionable about deriding orthodox left-arm spinners. But Paul Harris made an invaluable contribution to the victory in Perth, claiming five wickets and displaying nous, control, calm - and even the ability to turn the ball a touch. An average of 32 from 19 Tests is certainly nothing to be sniffed at, given the main attacking threat is always expected to come from the quicks. The pace trio have claimed 131 wickets between them this year. Dale Steyn's brand of devishly late reverse swing accounts for his phenomenal career strike-rate of 38; Morne Morkel is sometimes too wayward but clearly has all the attributes to be a superb Test bowler. Makhaya Ntini may not be improving at his rate, but he is playing an admirable role as the senior pace bowler, and has much nous to pass on.
South Africa, then, are clearly a formidable side. And their recent record is surely sufficient to label them the best side in the world. Officially, they will be so if they are to win this series 3-0. That is probably asking a little too much. But with such problems in their bowling attack, Australia must be tempted to try drastic selectorial action to cling on at the top.
In short, we have a new Christmas number one.