Australia's senior men upstaged again
Last month, Australia were bowled out for 47 in Cape Town. The only way from there, it appeared, was up. Appearances can be deceiving. Less than five weeks later, Michael Clarke's men have hit an even lower point. They have lost a Test at home to New Zealand.
If that sounds disrespectful to Ross Taylor's side it is not intended to be, for they played magnificently over four days at the Bellerive Oval. Their fast bowlers hit impeccable lines and moved the ball both in the air and off the seam. Their fielding was first-rate. Their batting, while flawed, was better than that of the hosts - at the moment, that's not hard to achieve.
But regardless of how well New Zealand played, the fact remains that Australia lost to the eighth-ranked Test side in the world, a team that sits ahead only of Bangladesh. Before this game, only once had New Zealand beaten Australia without Richard Hadlee in the team. This time, they didn't even have their best player, Daniel Vettori.
A fortnight ago, Clarke said New Zealand were a tough outfit to defeat "but if we're at our best, with this squad, we'll beat them". It is now clear to Clarke that his squad is not at its best, nor anywhere near it. And as they approach a four-Test series against India, that is a major concern. Even more worrying for Clarke and the team management, it is the senior players who are letting the side down.
Consider the list of Australia's best performers in the New Zealand series: James Pattinson (14 wickets), Nathan Lyon (10 wickets), David Warner (153 runs). In South Africa, 18-year-old Pat Cummins won Australia the Johannesburg Test. None had played Test cricket six months ago. The ups and downs are not the fault of a young team.
Warner was so impressive that he nearly dug Australia out of their Hobart hole with the help of Lyon. He must play on Boxing Day, regardless of whether both Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh return from injury. Of the senior men, only Clarke can hold his head up following his century in Brisbane. But in Hobart, he struggled.
Phillip Hughes cannot avoid edging seamers and cannot retain his place against India. His problems are technical, mental and terminal. Ishant Sharma would have watched Chris Martin's plans unfold perfectly, and could replicate them if Hughes plays.
Ricky Ponting no longer strikes fear into opposition attacks. At the Gabba he showed, as he did at the Wanderers last month, that there could still be Test runs in him. But there are far more failures now than ever before in his career. His back-foot drive that lobbed off the toe of the bat to cover in the second innings in Hobart was ugly. He will find life no easier against India.
Michael Hussey was Man of the Match in all three Tests against Sri Lanka. Now he cannot buy a run. Hussey made 23 against New Zealand at an average of 7.66. His past two series - against South Africa and New Zealand - have been the two worst of his Test career. Sri Lanka and his productive Ashes bought him credit, but he needs runs against India.
Brad Haddin continues to frustrate. Half-centuries in Brisbane and Johannesburg were key to Australia's victories. But in Cape Town he was irresponsible and, again, in Hobart he let the team down in important situations. On the fourth day, when resilience was required, he was dropped at slip and then edged another catch to the cordon next ball. That chance was not missed by Taylor.
Again, too much was left to the tail. They had already done their job with the ball. Pattinson, Lyon, Peter Siddle and, to a lesser extent, Mitchell Starc are a promising combination. If Ryan Harris can regain his fitness, they will be even more of a threat. But their work is irrelevant if the batsmen keep failing.
"I am worried about every one of us," Clarke said after the loss. "I can't be worried about the top order when the middle order didn't go very well either. In the first innings our tail played a big part of getting us to [around] 130, but as batters it is our job to make runs and we have got to do that more often.
"We were on the winning side in South Africa [in the Johannesburg Test] and unfortunately we lost today. It probably sums up where we're at as a team at the moment. We're seeing some really good patches of individual excellence and as a team we're playing really well in patches. But then we're seeing the other side as well, where we're letting ourselves down by very poor performances. We can't seem to find that middle road at the moment."
That Australia alternate between very good performances and poor ones is reflected in their place in the Test rankings: No. 4. And unless their batsmen find runs consistently, they'll stay there. They might even fall further. For, as they discovered in Hobart, the gap between No.4 and No.8 is not as wide as they thought.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo