Confused Australia battle identity crisis
Australia's batting deficiencies with the moving ball have not been erased by their return home from India. While the swing and seam was anticipated and the Gabba pitch was tricky, the batsmen's thoughts were cluttered and their shot selection scrambled. Going from flat surfaces to springy ones in a week is much harder than the other way around, but Australia expected more than 214 in their first innings on a day that ended with New Zealand in control.
In India it was reverse-swing that tricked the batsmen on placid wickets, but here it was the traditional method used by an attack that is modest on flat pitches and extremely dangerous with some moisture in the wicket. It was probing and controlled bowling against confused and ill-disciplined batting. Both teams have known since they arrived in Brisbane that the conditions would be like this - some players expected them to be worse following the deluge since the weekend - but it did not stop some of the locals flapping like the sails at the top of the eastern stand that had been ripped by a wild overnight storm.
So they played for the line of the ball and were surprised to feel edges heading for, between or through the slips cordon. Feet stayed stuck to the crease as the bat waved, and the movement was not covered. The errors were copied through the order. Some balls popped, others swung and seamed, but not many were left by the top order. The assignment was difficult by modern Test standards, but Australia made it look harder.
On spongy greentops it is important not to be caught between attack and defence, but the first three batsmen were in the mixed zone and after 7.1 overs Tim Southee had the hosts 3 for 23. Southee exploited the tentativeness to gain edges from Matthew Hayden and Simon Katich while Ricky Ponting turned his bat and was unable to deal with the extra bounce as a leading edge went to second slip.
The evolving Australian team has an identity crisis, not being sure whether to rebuild from the bottom or continue with the attack-from-all-positions method of their predecessors. All of New Zealand's players know their roles and capabilities, from the impressive Southee to the casual medium pace of Jesse Ryder. Ryder, who was called for an over before tea, watched Brad Haddin swing loosely and edge to Jamie How at second slip, before he came back to end the innings by bowling Michael Clarke.
Haddin was unable to control his aggressive urges in India and if his batting mindset doesn't change his days as Australia's gloveman will be limited. He was not the only one to fall victim to a mistimed shot. Shane Watson was a fortunate inclusion for the offspinner Jason Krejza - a decision which makes attaining the required over-rate even harder - and hung his bat out to edge Iain O'Brien to Brendon McCullum for 1. Two overs earlier the wicketkeeper had closed Andrew Symonds' eventful 26 when the batsman found himself in an awkward position to a testing delivery from O'Brien.
"A few guys will be disappointed because they were starting to feel comfortable and then got out," Clarke said. "That's the way it goes. On that wicket we're going to see more of that tomorrow. Once you get a start, guys will feel pretty comfortable, but I think you'll see plenty of zeroes to fives and tens because there's enough bounce and certainly enough seam there."
Luck contributes on days like this, but it sits next to application. No player was more fortunate than Clarke as he showed he could produce some ugly and highly effective runs. Clarke is a batsman who always wants to purr but he was able to tone down and was successful at a crucial time. He could have departed three times early in his 98, when balls squirted between fielders behind point, and there were other miscues, near misses and a painful blow in the groin.
"I never really felt that comfortable throughout my whole innings," he said. "I felt like I had to work really hard all the time. As soon as I looked at the scoreboard and saw I was on 30, 40, 50 and thought I'd play a few more shots, every single time I had to pull my head in because I didn't feel that comfortable."
Clarke was able to settle and benefit from the good fortune and gritty outlook. Michael Hussey had used the strategy sensibly in his 35 until padding up to Chris Martin, but the rest of Clarke's partners were not prepared for the graft. Clarke was unable to be moved until Ryder delivered an inswinger that the batsman missed while trying to drive. He had stayed for 217 balls, hitting nine fours mostly behind point, and Australia were desperate for the contribution.
"If you had have told me I was going to get 98 this morning, I would have been rapt," he said. "Getting that close, and the way Stuey Clark hung in there, I'm disappointed I didn't get there, but at the end of the day the team's total is way more important. With 214 on the board I think we did pretty well, we hung in there and did well on that wicket."
When the situation is tough the current Australian outfit finds it more difficult to eliminate their flashes and regain focus. Clarke showed them how to overcome an edgy start and give them hope on a day that ended in gloom above the ground and around the home side. New Zealand's inexperienced collection has already out-thought their opponents and has the opportunity for an upset if it can avoid the same errors that cost the hosts.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo