Australia run out of focus
No moment highlighted Australia's fall from world beaters to stragglers more than when Shane Watson's right knee stopped a certain run-out on Friday night. Watson's leg wasn't the only thing being blamed and the slapstick incident had its owner smiling, in frustration and humour, after arriving in Brisbane today.
For the past two decades Australia have been so well drilled in the field, but when Upul Tharanga ended up at Kumar Sangakkara's end the locals fell apart. And it was not the fresh faces who lapsed, but three seriously senior men.
When Brad Haddin collected the ball all he needed was a vaguely accurate lob to the bowler's end, but he overshot wildly. Michael Clarke backed up well and then made the mistake of aiming at the stumps instead of sending the ball to Watson, or running up to remove the bails himself. While the throw was on target, Watson was too slow to move and was struck an embarrassing, but not painful, blow on the leg. As the ball rolled away from the stumps, Tharanga finally regained his ground and went on to an unbeaten 86.
"I thought I was involved in a game of brandy with a cricket ball," Watson said. "Next time I need to get out of the way." Clarke hasn't offered Watson a free shot as payback, but the blow hasn't changed Watson's belief that Clarke is the best man to lead the team in Ricky Ponting's absence on Sunday.
Australia have lost seven games in a row in the game's three forms but the missed-run-out episode, played over only a couple of seconds, was a snapshot of how deep the problems have become. In the past the team's batting has stumbled and the bowling has been loose, which are often forgivable offences. Results in the field have always been non-negotiable.
Even before Mike Young, the former baseball coach, joined the squad to refine techniques, the work of the fielders was expected to be perfect. The area was used as the team's performance barometer, but as the side's Test ranking has slipped and its one-day reputation has eroded, the pressure they now place on the opposition is seriously low.
Watson insists Australia aren't far off clicking and, like most of the players in the squad, believes their efforts have been close to the standard required. But if they can't win on Sunday it will be the first time the national outfit has been defeated in eight matches in a row.
"It's not an ideal situation for the games we've lost over the last little while, but it is a new era of Australian cricket," he said. "Let's hope we can come together and make sure it is a successful period. It hasn't been for the last little while, but we know we're not far away from getting it right. So we hope people stick by us."
Watson will open at the Gabba - he still calls it his home ground despite moving to New South Wales last year - and will be particularly wary of the Sri Lanka seamers in the bowler-friendly conditions. The visiting fast men have gained significant movement in the opening two matches to hold Australia to 210 on Friday and 8 for 239 on Wednesday.
"The Sri Lankans have bowled very well, especially Nuwan Kulasekara and Lasith Malinga with the new ball," he said. "It's been hard to get them away. Let's hope they get carried away tomorrow night [in the conditions]." Only recently have Australian teams had to start hoping for opposition mistakes.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo