Australia v Sri Lanka, 1st ODI, Melbourne November 3, 2010

Australia forget how to win

The word 'choke' was not uttered when Michael Clarke answered questions about Australia's scarcely believable defeat at the hands of Sri Lanka. It didn't need to be. Whatever you like to call it, Australia are struggling to finish teams off, and the evidence has been building for a long time. It is a worrying trend for a team that in the next six months is hoping to regain the Ashes and retain the World Cup.

To allow Sri Lanka back into the game after reducing them to 8 for 107 in a chase of 240 was a failure of bowling and captaincy. Clarke is not a seasoned leader, and after this loss he'll no doubt be glad to hand control back to Ricky Ponting for Friday's second ODI. But whoever is in charge, Australia must find a way to regain their killer instinct.

The problem is occurring across all formats. A month ago, India's last two pairs added 92 and inflicted a similarly unbelievable one-wicket defeat on Ponting's men in the Mohali Test. The classic example was the Ashes opener last year in Cardiff, when Monty Panesar and James Anderson became national heroes for England by surviving a tense final period to secure a draw. The stakes weren't as high at the MCG, but the feeling was much the same after Angelo Mathews and Lasith Malinga fought back with a 132-run stand.

"What I'm so disappointed in is we got so close again and we couldn't finish the game off, which is an issue we've had for a while now in all three forms of the game," Clarke said. "We've got to look at that and ask ourselves questions, find out what we can do to improve that.

"Execution cost us today with both bat and ball. Having them 8 for 107, we got hit around the park. Mathews is a very good player, but Malinga is a No. 10 - a good No. 10, but he's still a No. 10 batsman. If we're good enough to execute our plans and get the top order out, I don't see any reason why we can't do it to the tailenders. But it's not the first time it's happened, and it's something we need to look at."

Mathews and Malinga batted superbly, but the Australians didn't make life too difficult. There was a distinct lack of yorkers from the fast men, who served up plenty of half-volleys that the batsmen could dispatch with power, and after the impressive debutant Xavier Doherty had completed his overs, nobody looked like getting a wicket.

Ponting has often been criticised over his choice of bowlers in crunch situations in the past couple of years, and Clarke will analyse his own decisions as much as anyone. He could not call on Steven Smith during the match-winning partnership as Smith had hurt his back while fielding, but given the success of Doherty, a couple of overs of Clarke's own spin might have been worth a try.

The loss stretched Australia's winless streak to six internationals across all formats. Not since the Lord's Test against Pakistan in July have they won a match, and as Mohammad Amir and co would attest, that seems like a lifetime ago. Australia look like they've forgotten how to win at all, and even victories in the remaining two ODIs won't erase the doubts ahead of the Ashes. And then there's a World Cup to play for, starting next February.

"I think [these games are] important for more than the Ashes," Clarke said. "We've got a one-day World Cup coming up after the Ashes and we need to be playing our best cricket now. Before this game we've got 10 matches leading up to a one-day World Cup. The Ashes is great, everybody's looking forward to it, but we need to be focused on what's in front of us because right now, we're not playing our best cricket and we need to be."

South Africa have traditionally entered major tournaments trying to dispel the notion that they choke at big moments. Australia have three months to ensure they don't develop a similar reputation.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at Cricinfo