Australia v New Zealand, 2nd Test, Hobart, 2nd day December 10, 2011

Australia must learn to handle challenging pitches

Once is unlucky, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern. Five times in two years makes Australia's first-innings fiascos a fully-fledged habit

The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. Australia's inability to handle the swinging and seaming ball has become an embarrassment. They need to own up to it, find a solution, and make amends to those they have wronged: their fans.

Their weakness has caused them to surrender Tests to England, South Africa and Pakistan over the past two years. Perhaps it will take the humiliation of a first Test loss to New Zealand in nearly two decades for the Australians to realise the severity of the situation. After two days in Hobart, there was a genuine danger of that happening as New Zealand's lead expanded to worrying levels.

For Australia it was another day of challenging conditions and another batting breakdown. This time Michael Clarke's men winkled their way to 136, only through some tail-end resistance from Peter Siddle and James Pattinson. They were lucky to get there, having been 7 for 75 when the last recognised batsman departed.

Since the start of last year, Australia have suffered major batting fiascos five times in 20 Tests. Once is unlucky, twice a coincidence, three times a pattern. Five times is a fully-fledged habit. Never has the pitch been so dreadful that the best batsmen in the country should fail so emphatically. It is to be expected that Test tracks will test batsmen. Australia cannot be anything but a middling Test nation while the collapses remain part of their game.

Last January, they made 127 against Pakistan in Sydney. Later that year it was 88 at Headingley, also against Pakistan. On Boxing Day, they stumbled to 98 against England. Last month in Cape Town the alarm bells rang when they were skittled for 47. And now, 136 against New Zealand. Three times in the past 18 months, the Australians have been dismissed for less than 100 in a Test innings.

Last time that happened, WG Grace was part of the opposition. The year was 1888. Australia was not yet an independent nation. It was only 20 years since the last boatload of British convicts had sailed down under. The Wisden Almanack referred to the Australian side as "the Colonials". Test pitches were uncovered and the players were amateurs.

Australia's leading cricketers now earn millions of dollars. There is no excuse for them not to work on their techniques. Perhaps part of the problem is that, for some, their biggest paycheques come from Twenty20 contracts. The shortest form of the game does not encourage diligence.

Not that the majority of Australia's batsmen got out to overly-aggressive strokeplay in Hobart. Brad Haddin did, at 5 for 69 imprudently driving Doug Bracewell to mid-off. Haddin was the major culprit in the Cape Town capitulation, when he backed away and tried to force over the off side when Australia were 5 for 18.

For the rest, it was a combination of poor judgment and good bowling. When the ball is moving the key is to play late and straight. Reaching forward is unwise. David Warner came forward to drive and edged a ball that seamed away. Usman Khawaja also tickled behind, a frustrating end to a patient innings of 7 from 51 balls.

Three times in the past 18 months, the Australians have been dismissed for less than 100 in a Test innings. Last time that happened, WG Grace was part of the opposition. The year was 1888. Australia was not yet an independent nation.

Ricky Ponting walked across his stumps and was caught in at least two minds. Should he play or leave? In the end, he didn't really do either. Clarke is the most in-form batsman in the side, and he seemed ready to lead the recovery, as he had in the first innings in Cape Town with a wonderful century. Instead, he left a ball on line - it nipped back and confiscated his off stump.

Michael Hussey, so immovable in Sri Lanka, has now scored 1, 0, 20, 39, 15 and 8 since that tour. Like Clarke, he tried to leave, but did not get his bat out of the way in time and feathered a catch behind. And of course, Phillip Hughes, now almost certain to be axed for Boxing Day, had prodded forward and across unnecessarily, and edged to slip on the first afternoon.

Perhaps by virtue of being less confident batsmen, Siddle and Pattinson did play late and straight early in their innings. It was the best thing for the situation.

It is tempting to think that the players have been spoiled by flat pitches. For some, that might be true. But Sheffield Shield cricket has been played on some tough tracks in the past couple of seasons. Since the start of last summer, Shield sides have collapsed for sub-100 scores seven times, and a further six have been out from 100 to 130. It is a high ratio.

Some state players find ways to cope. Tasmania's Alex Doolan seems to survive longer than most in the tricky conditions at Bellerive Oval. Queensland's Wade Townsend, whose job requires him to open at the Gabba on a regular basis, has piled on the runs this year. Not that these men are pushing for Test selection, but their work shows, as Dean Brownlie proved on the first day of the Test, that difficult pitches can be negotiated.

But not even going back to state cricket will help Australia's players during the upcoming Test series against India. The Big Bash League has monopolised the domestic calendar in late December and January. The BBL is no place to work on Test form.

Whatever the case, Australia's batsmen need to find a way to handle challenging pitches. They will see more of them in the future. And if they can't admit they have a problem, somebody must confront them with reality.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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