Australia's limitations confirmed
Jonty Rhodes once said of Shane Warne's flipper that while the bowler's thumb position meant he could often tell it was coming, he still found the ball extremely difficult to play. Australia could not possibly have been better prepared for their tilt at the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, but for all the planning and forethought that went into it, their campaign still fell to pieces with alarming haste.
Pakistan dusted off a month-old blue print for beating George Bailey's side in their last Super Eights match, and West Indies improved upon it with startling effectiveness in the semi-final. All through a strong run to that point, Australia had never quite overturned the widely held view that their batting was suspect beyond the top three of Shane Watson, David Warner and Michael Hussey.
Watson and Warner had given their side the veneer of invincibility during the earlier matches, pummelling a series of opposition attacks when presented with middling targets. But as the Premadasa Stadium pitches grew tired and opponents adapted to Australia's tactics, the early sheen gave way to a greater number of errors and a creeping fatigue - mental as much as physical.
This was surprising, for no Australian T20 team has been so comprehensively drilled for a particular task. From the moment the national selector John Inverarity named Bailey as the new T20 captain in January, and also included the ageing wrist spinner Brad Hogg, it was clear the team's objective was no longer developmental or promotional in nature. Here was a team chosen to win the World T20 trophy, nothing more and nothing less.
In contrast to previous squads, Bailey's was given plenty of time to work together, playing series against India, West Indies and Pakistan while also spending time in camp. Inverarity had charged the team's leaders "to drive a focused, disciplined and fiercely determined culture in this team". Culture has become a key word in Australian cricket, and consistent team selections were geared towards creating the most united group possible for Sri Lanka. There was extra scouting work done too, as the coach Mickey Arthur stayed home from part of the preceding tour of the UAE to plan for Sri Lanka.
Initially it worked, as Ireland, West Indies, India and South Africa were swatted away with impressive might. Arthur's pre-tournament conclusion that the Premadasa pitches would start with some life proved well founded. Rested from the UAE series, Watson was at the centre of it all, claiming four Man-of-the-Match awards in succession. Xavier Doherty came in for Dan Christian against South Africa and immediately had an impact, burgling three wickets while keeping the runs down.
Yet the margins of these victories may ultimately have hurt Australia as much as they helped. A powerful top order flourished but did no more than required if the tournament was to be won. The less credentialled batsmen beneath had little to do, and little chance to prove to themselves that they were up to the task if a match became tight. The bowlers did well, Mitchell Starc especially, but invariably held the momentum after early wickets fell. When Pakistan and the West Indies both formed partnerships there did not seem an Australian bowler capable of twisting the match with a double break.
So when the contests came, there was a flatness to the way Australia performed at the pointy end, a certain sharpness missing. This was best illustrated in the field, where a previously zippy unit moved sluggishly in the final two games, perhaps lacking Christian's vim. There was a costly dropped catch by Glenn Maxwell from the edge of Nasir Jamshed against Pakistan, and a handful of other misfields. Against West Indies, the fielders watched 14 sixes sail over their heads, but the brothers Hussey also allowed a pair of shots burst through their fingers to the boundary.
As Bailey, Arthur or Inverarity must have known, such lapses could not be afforded by a team lacking the depth of talent available to some other sides. Beyond Watson, Warner, Hussey and Starc, few of Australia's other players would have commanded places in the T20 teams named by the opposing nations. Maxwell's selection for the tournament was a bold gamble, showing confidence in a young allrounder with enormous belief in his own ability. But "the big show", as teammates dubbed Maxwell, was ultimately a sideshow, playing a poor game against Pakistan to lose his place for the semi.
It may have been a failure of nerve if anything to recall David Hussey in Maxwell's place. Possessing a rich domestic T20 record and a vast array of experience, he was left out until the last possible moment, as Bailey and Arthur judged Dan Christian, Cameron White and Maxwell to be better options. At times Bailey in particular was annoyed by the level of interest in Hussey's absence from the XI. Finally he was called on for the semi-final, and as it turned out he was ineffectual, expensive with the ball and bouncer-shy with the bat.
Bailey led the side neatly enough, and showed flashes of batting that indicated his place was more deserved than some thought. But he felt the strain of leading his country in his first year as an international cricketer, his trademark smile becoming wryer with each match. He also placed too much faith in his longtime Tasmania teammate and friend Doherty against West Indies, handing him a final over that felt predestined to end in carnage against Chris Gayle and Kieron Pollard.
Ultimately, the failure of Australia's quest reflected the limitations of their players. The nation's pace bowling resources are strong, but there is a thinness to the batting and spin bowling that needs somehow to be rectified. Otherwise all the planning in the world will not prevent Australia from puzzling at future ICC events, as Rhodes once did, about how familiarity does not guarantee success.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here