Stop-start batsmen can't go on
Tim Nielsen addressed the media after the second day's play in Adelaide and declared Australia's bold intention to push for an innings victory. He might well have wished to retract those comments when Shane Watson fell to Sulieman Benn's second ball on Sunday - a dismissal that prompted a chain of events that left Australia slumping from 0 for 174 overnight to all out for 439. But the fault for Australia's 12-run first-innings deficit was hardly that of the coach.
Instead, it was the batsmen's failure to capitalise on starts that ensured West Indies gained a lead after the opening innings for the first time on Australian soil in 12 years. In what is fast developing into a worrying trend, only one of the last 12 Australian batsmen to have passed 50 has gone on to reach triple figures. Nine of those half-centuries have been scored in the opening two Tests against West Indies but, as yet, no one has bettered Shane Watson's 96 in Adelaide.
Certainly, much of the credit for this belongs to West Indies, whose bowlers have shown levels of discipline and consistency at the Gabba and Adelaide Oval their batsmen have yet to match. The towering Sulieman Benn was always going to prove a handful out of the footmarks on a hard, turning Adelaide wicket, while the pace and unrelenting accuracy of Kemar Roach have proven a constant menace.
But disciplined West Indian bowling is not the only factor behind Australia's century drought. Whether it is lack of focus and application at crucial junctures, big-game pressure or technical deficiencies, Nielsen will be most keen to find the source of the issue before England's arrival in 10 months. That so many of Australia's batsmen are reaching 50 indicates form is not the issue, but their inability to assert themselves thereafter is posing problems for the coach.
The last Australian batsman to post triple figures was Michael Hussey, whose fighting 121 at The Oval in August may have saved his Test career but not the Ashes. Speaking after the third day in Adelaide, Hussey played down the significance of the team's lack of recent Test centuries.
"We had some good partnerships but we couldn't quite break through that barrier and go on and get a really huge partnership and get ourselves into a real position of strength," Hussey said after being dismissed by Roach for 41. "It's often the case here in Adelaide, you can find it difficult to get some real scoring momentum going and then if you do lose a couple of wickets suddenly the fielding team have the momentum.
"It would have been nice to go on but it wasn't actually easy out there. It was quite hard work. You make one mistake and unfortunately you're on your way. It's certainly the goal of the team to go on from good starts but I don't think we should make an issue of it because if you start making an issue of getting to 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, then you start tensing up at those times when you still need to keep playing your natural game. Hopefully we'll turn those starts into big scores soon in the future."
One of the cornerstones of Australia's decade of success from the mid-1990s was the ability of their batsmen to convert starts into imposing totals. Steve Waugh was among those to speak of the mental discipline required to push through the 50s and beyond, but such powers of concentration have eluded the Australians of late.
Simon Katich and Ricky Ponting have surpassed 50 a combined five times in Australia's last three Tests, but have lost their wickets to rash strokes on more than one occasion. Michael Clarke added his name to the list when he fell to Benn for 71 on Sunday, prompting the Bajan spinner to wonder aloud as to the reasons behind Australia's lack of converted centuries.
"The pitches that we've played on so far at Brisbane and here have been good," Benn said. "Even I have got starts on them so I can't see it being that hard to get starts for anyone. I guess if you keep plugging away and bowling hard and be patient you can get some results as a bowler."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo