Australia v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Hobart, 4th day December 17, 2012

Long way ahead for limping Australia

Australia's performance against Sri Lanka in Hobart so far suggests they are far from being close to the best cricket outfit in the world

Amid the management-speak excesses of Pat Howard's verdict on the South Africa series, Australia's team performance manager offered the following succinct line: "To be the best you've got to be well and truly the best, and we've got a long way to go." Limping like Michael Clarke was on day four, that journey seems even longer.

Whether or not Australia will get much closer to becoming "well and truly the best" during this series against Sri Lanka is questionable. Irrespective of the opposition, their progress in Hobart so far has been at a cost that has reinforced the precarious state of the national team so close to a pair of major assignments against India and England.

To lose another fast bowler in Ben Hilfenhaus was unfortunate if not entirely unexpected, given that the Tasmanian's side ailment makes him the seventh pace bowler somewhere near the national team to fall prey to injury. The sight of Clarke stepping gingerly between overs to assume a stationary position at first slip was altogether more concerning, for while Australia does have a rich supply of fast bowlers, the list of men behind the captain capable of leading the national team is even less numerous than the poorly attendances at Bellerive Oval this week.

Clarke's mere presence on the field, rather than seeking treatment in the rooms for a hamstring problem, spoke volumes about the lack of ready replacements for his tactical flair and ideas when Australia are attempting to bowl an opposing team out in the fourth innings. It did not reflect a great deal of confidence in Clarke's deputy Shane Watson, who has led his country in ODIs before and now looks a chance of assuming the Test captaincy should Clarke fail to recover in time for the Boxing Day Test.

Watson's value as a bowling option was to be confirmed when he struck the first blow of Sri Lanka's chase, coaxing an outside edge from Tillakaratne Dilshan with a ball that bounced and seamed away a fraction on an immaculate line. But like Dilshan, Watson's skills appear best suited to being used without the burden of captaincy, something that he wrestled with at times during his time deputising for Clarke in ODIs in Australia and the West Indies earlier this year.

Another issue of considerable worry for Australia on day four was the team's play against the spin of Rangana Herath. As the world's most prolific wicket-taker in 2012, Herath poses problems at least the equal to those that will be presented by India's bevy of slow bowlers in early 2013 and Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar later. But the failure of Watson, in particular, to deal with his flight, spin and variations in pace suggested that the scheduling crossover, which will have most of Australia's ODI exponents unavailable for the opening match of the Test tour to the subcontinent in February, will be ill-timed for some.

"It's inevitable, with our scheduling at the moment that type of stuff is inevitable," Australia's coach Mickey Arthur said. "For us to give best possible preparation to the Test squad we've got to get as many of them into India as soon as we can, so they can prepare properly for what's going to be a tough four Test matches. We'll split our staff, I'll definitely see the one-dayers out, I suspect if Michael Clarke's fit he'll do the same, because we've got that responsibility to the Australian public and to the sponsors, but we wouldn't be preparing ourselves properly for the four Tests if we didn't give ourselves maximum opportunity to go out to India earlier and prepare."

Watson batted at No. 6 for Australia on the tetchy 2008 tour of India, and played the odd decent innings against the old ball. In 2010, he played his longest and most patient Test knock against MS Dhoni's team at the outset of the Mohali match that would end in such heart-rending fashion for a team then led by Ricky Ponting. However the surfeit of ODI and Twenty20 matches played by Watson since, and his continuing shuffle around the batting order, do not appear to have helped his progress against the spinning ball. He was bottled up by Herath and unable to work the ball around, a fretful five also featuring a pair of beseeching LBW appeals before ending with a stumping as ball spun past a groping bat.

Herath's wiles will be useful ahead of India, most notably on the SCG where this summer the pitch has shown a return to its slower, spinning ways of yore rather than the slightly faster and often seaming surface of recent seasons. "He's a quality performer and he's shown it this year, he's got a phenomenal record this year, so hopefully that goes some way [towards] giving us a little snippet of playing [Pragyan] Ojha or [Ravindra] Jadeja, whoever it is, in India," Arthur said. "And Herath is a really good bowler, so looking forward to that confrontation through the summer."

How Australia fares on the final day in Hobart will be intriguing in itself of course, as Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara dig in for battle amid the increasingly variable bounce offered by the surface. The hosts' chances of getting closer to the high mark set by Howard, Arthur and the limping Clarke will be best measured on their travels, and they stand little chance of enjoying success if they suffer the sorts of injuries and hiccups against spin witnessed here.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 18, 2012, 7:16 GMT

    I think Staarc bowled as he is capable of bowling and that was more than enough for australia . I think there is too much doom and gloom amidst aussie ranks. India does not have a decent spinner and that was evident against England. I expect Warner to do well. He has played so much cricket here that I am sure the conditions will be a lot easier for him than for Cowan. I expect Clarke and Hussey to score heavily . If the australian pace bowlers bowl well they can be a handful for the indian team that is currently at a low. As for the ashies, I think australia and australian supporters should take one series at a time and hope that their bowlers are fit. If Cummins and Pattinson are fit, then the series could be fun . Cheer up australia, you finally won a test match this summer. Ramanujam Sridhar

  • Andrew on December 18, 2012, 6:35 GMT

    @Jono Makim - I don't think Warner is that good (atm) in Test conditions against a spinner. His only Test ton against a recognised spinner was at AO v Tahir & we know how unforgetable he was that day! I think Warner goes too hard at the ball against spinners. That is okay in Oz, but I think he could be a bunny in India. I picked Smith as I believe he is very good against spin, a good fielder & gives a variety option in spin bowling. @Rahul_Ashok on (December 17 2012, 12:50 PM GMT) - man this is about the 4th time you've misunderstood what I said about Ussie. I am backing Ussie for the tour of India, with Hughes & Watto opening. I am happy with the "4 openers" policy Oz have atm. Ussie will get his chance - he has put a good case fwd & his time is soon.

  • Andrew on December 18, 2012, 6:27 GMT

    @Beertjie on (December 17 2012, 22:24 PM GMT) - yeah true though I think Rogers is past his use by date - just. I am not sure he would be all that effective in Indian conditions. He'd be a good fill-in for the Ashes should Cowan tank. I am not sure that Patto is the type of bowler that will succeed in India - I could be spectacularly wrong though! (Probably am)! @Wajira de Abrew - I am assuming you are fairly new to following cricket or taking a joke. The fact is a good pitch should start to deteriorate late in a match (Day 4 onwards). When a pitch is POOR - it has variable bounce on Day 1. Given Oz rattled up 299 runs on Day 1. The reality is, this is an excellent pitch, whereby pace & spin bowling is rewarded if bowled well. Good batting gets rewarded to (Dilshan, Clarke & Hussey). FOURTH innings are not meant to be easy!

  • thusin on December 18, 2012, 4:54 GMT

    Well written article , but re-stating the facts that the viewers already know. Other than that can we know about the ball-tampering issue that has been reported. I know the match referee can only put any fines after the match, and those things will be confirmed after the match. But only Andrew fernando has raised this obvious issue and no coverage by the other OZ commentators.This has to be closely monitored as the media coverage can only pinpoint these issues, only if its made aware.Otherwise all can be swept under the carpet.

    Its good that if Daniel can put forward his thoughts on this. Cheers mate.

  • GV on December 18, 2012, 4:18 GMT

    Jakespin, why bring in Broad, Bresnan and Onions? At least in the case of Broad and Bresnan, I wonder if even the bowlers themselves would agree with your rosy assessment. But Anderson and Finn, yes, they are oozing class.

  • Sean on December 17, 2012, 23:09 GMT

    Still struggling to win a single game at home, huh? What an embarrassment.

  • Lee on December 17, 2012, 22:36 GMT

    Oh come on, this article is mostly rubbish, Daniel. Rangana Herath is the leading test wicket taker for 2012 and is a far superior operator to anything India is currently fielding so it would be nice if you guys in the media could afford him, and Sri Lanka, some respect. Besides, just because he took a couple of wickets against us while we were swinging the bat around like hammer throwers trying to get to a declaration total does not mean that the Aussies are going to start having nightmares about Ravi Ashwin and Pragyan Ohja. Australia are being challenged by a good team, so what? They are still in a dominant position as they have been for much of the summer, you make it sound as though they are on the verge of a resounding defeat. It never ceases to amaze me how negative and cynical the cricketing media gets whenever the subject of Australia is being discussed.

  • Mashuq on December 17, 2012, 22:24 GMT

    Spot on @Marcio - enough of the negativity, Dan! @Meety on (December 17 2012, 09:52 AM GMT), you make a fair point when you write that "we can't aford to be tinkering with the line up prior to the Ashes." Now instead of Smith at #6 why not pick Rogers instead of Cowan (at least for 2013)? Watson's bowling is going to be needed so he could be #4 or 6. Pattinson is likely to be fit for India so he should go, but like all the bowlers, he needs to be rotated judiciously. Reverse swingers like Harris and Pattinson should play alternate tests alongside Siddle, with a leftie like Starc a good back up. @mikey76 on (December 17 2012, 16:59 PM GMT), the two currently injured stars of the 20013 Indian tour are expected to be available: Harris and Pattinson. If they are fit they'll make Anderson and Finn look like the over-hyped Poms they are.

  • Harvey on December 17, 2012, 22:21 GMT

    I dont think Watson should be VC/Captain. He barely deserves selection. What about Butterworth, Cutting or Henriques? They are all outperforming Watson

  • Graham on December 17, 2012, 22:18 GMT

    Jontycodes - He should have had Sangakkara already out on a defensive shot. Yes its harder to get wickets when players are hell bent on defence but least Australia are continuosly getting themselves into positions where they are the only team that can win. Everyone else, I've seen variable bounce on every pitch in the world lated day 4 and day 5 - not much difference here. Pitches need to break up to test batsmans skills otherwise every match will be a draw. I guess Sri Lankans and Indians arent used to playing a day 5 in Australia and is completely unaware that this does happen.

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