Cape Town - The very nucleus of the Australian cricket team is endangered by the mounting scandal around their confessed ball-tampering misconduct at Newlands and galling, ringing cries of “cheats” worldwide.
It raises the question - if not even during the ongoing third Test against South Africa, with some calls already for it to be “forfeited” due to the rumpus - of just what the touring team will look like by the time the decisive final Test at the Wanderers comes around next Friday.
The teams are locked in a 1-1 situation, although with the Proteas already significantly bossing the third clash with two days’ play remaining and favoured at this point to take an insurmountable 2-1 lead.
South Africa’s swelling second-innings score on Saturday afternoon - when television cameras sensationally caught fielder Cameron Bancroft carrying out the clandestine yellow-tape bid to affect the integrity of the ball for reverse-swing purposes - was a key reason for an admitted “leadership group” of the Australians sparking the misdeed in an act of near-desperation.
Even if the presumably shell-shocked, severely mentally distracted Baggy Greens do go on to lose at Newlands, which now just seems likelier, the Bullring encounter still has massive significance in deciding the outcome of the series ... not to mention a broader historical poignancy.
The Proteas have not yet, from several attempts, managed to win a home Test series against their great southern foes in the post-isolation period - though they have unusually done so three successive times away in recent years - so they will be hell-bent on completing the business in Johannesburg (assuming that they are not undone in any late, purely cricket-related twists in Cape Town).
Should they complete the overall business successfully, it would represent the first home success over Australia since Ali Bacher’s immortals of 1969/70 did the trick by a 4-0 margin, something Faf du Plessis’s troops are getting tantalisingly close to repeating, even if not by same emphatic margin.
But just how much will the events of Saturday affect the composition of the Aussie XI - and their psychological readiness and fortitude - going forward to the Wanderers?
By then, the International Cricket Council disciplinary steps (involving the match referee and umpires and senior officials at their headquarters) around the tampering flashpoint will almost certainly be known, whilst Cricket Australia themselves have sent with some haste their “head of integrity” and head of team performance to these shores to investigate.
Ashen-faced captain Steve Smith revealing at the press conference after Saturday’s uproar that a “leadership group knew about it”, while adding “I’m not naming names”, raises the awkward question of just how many of the Australian camp may be implicated and drawn into censure – some of which almost certainly will involve Test suspensions.
Additionally, there is no less heat being turned on the national coach, Darren Lehmann, who has a decidedly chequered history himself in cricket conduct terms, and now the subject of some derision for being absent from the press conference on Saturday amidst widespread accusations he must have known what was happening on the field at Newlands.
These presently look like Australian players most at risk of not seeing out the SA series, suggesting at very least that additional squad members not yet fielded - batsman Peter Handscomb, left-arm spinner Jon Holland, and seamers Jhye Richardson and Chadd Sayers - may need to stay as sharp as possible:
The captain has insisted he intends continuing in the role, but already massive sentiment is mounting back in Australia - including from Government now - that he be forced to quit, and he was highly significantly “stood down” as leader for the remainder of the Cape Town contest.
Is there any chance now at all of Smith somehow bouncing back to keep the team united and focused, under his specific watch, for Johannesburg? It appears enormously unlikely, considering the magnitude of events and the emotions around them - not to mention his own very central role in the cheating furore.
But Smith, 28, is also Australia’s best batsman, with a stellar average of almost 62 after 63 completed Tests.
He was a massive factor in the recent home Ashes series triumph, plundering a double-century and two others of the single variety, and sits at the top of the ICC Test batting rankings as well.
But, in a series where he has strangely not yet caught fire with the blade (top score 56 in Durban), what price him even playing as rank-and-filer in the Bullring finale?
A complex, combustible character at the best of times, Warner is - very debatably - Australia’s vice-captain (although, like Smith, stripped of those duties on day four at Newlands).
As such, he is also almost automatically a key figure in the ill-fated, premeditated ball-tampering initiative and will come under deep scrutiny of his own in the matter.
The 31-year-old is second only to Smith as most precious source of runs in an otherwise iffy Australian specialist batting line-up at present and, similarly to the skipper, has performed moderately by his high standards in the SA series.
Consistent acrimony in the series also pretty much began, remember, with his filmed contretemps with Proteas wicketkeeper Quinton de Kock in the Kingsmead pavilion stairwell, where he had to be physically restrained by a team-mate.
Warner has walked a disciplinary tightrope plenty of times before; is he about to fall off?
Bancroft is easily the most “rookie” of the players named here, but as the player specifically collared for the pre-engineered misdeed, he is inevitably at high risk of carrying a very heavy can, indeed.
His situation was hardly helped in recent hours by a prominent Australian television news channel showing previously unreleased footage of the opening batsman shoving sugar into a pocket during one of the Ashes Tests a few weeks ago.
Is he going to be branded a “repeat offender” in ball-tampering terms?
If so, the consequences for the 25-year-old could be especially devastating.
Ironically, his gritty first innings of 77 at Newlands shortly before the furore seemed to be going some way to stabilising his position in the team – he had entered the Test averaging only 27 after seven outings.
Amongst a plethora of other problems, an alternative, standby opener is almost certainly on the urgent Aussie agenda ...
The seasoned off-spinner is the most capped current Australian bowler by some distance (he boasts 77 Test appearances including Newlands – the senior fast bowler is Mitchell Starc with 43).
So he is almost certainly a “leadership figure” and as such, will come under the spotlight as well for any involvement links to the Tape-gate rumpus.
Lyon has some disciplinary “previous” in this series, having earned a reprimand for his “drop ball” incident on a sprawling AB de Villiers, just run out in the Kingsmead Test - he admitted guilt over conduct contrary to the spirit of the game.
But the long-established premier Aussie slow bowler in this format - just another looming headache for the selectors, maybe? - is also on record before the Ashes series as saying he was prepared to “headbutt the line” of decent conduct to help earn home triumph.
Those words may just blow back into his face.
“What an upturn for his career,” noted SuperSport commentator and Aussie-born Mike Haysman as news broke that the veteran, 33-year-old wicketkeeper had been entrusted with emergency leadership on Sunday.
Paine, after all, had experienced a seven-year absence from Test cricket before his call-up for the Ashes and then the SA safari.
His ascension to temporary command, of course, will also raise the issue of whether he is deemed part of Smith’s under-the-microscope “leadership group”.
An alternative view, though, might be that Paine has taken the reins specifically because he has been considered untainted by events - which would seem a wise course of action.
Who’d wish to be in Australia’s dressing room, and tasked with transforming things from this widespread, extraordinary position of unease, for the remainder of this series?
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing