Spin exposes Australia middle order again
When Australia played Sri Lanka at the Premadasa during the 2011 World Cup, the visitors arrived with a very well aired reputation for being poor players of spin. The pitch that was prepared was so dry that Ricky Ponting called it "basically just rolled mud". Sri Lanka played three specialist spinners, but before Australia had a chance to bat the match was rained out. Nineteen months later, at the same venue, Pakistan banked on their phalanx of slow-bowlers and Australia faltered.
This time the pitch was no rolled mud. In fact Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins generated pace and were rewarded with good carry. Xavier Doherty and Brad Hogg managed some turn, but they were hardly unplayable. Still, Pakistan backed their spinners to the extent that if Shoaib Malik had not disappeared for 14 in the 15th over, the Premadasa might have witnessed the first full Twenty20 innings comprised entirely of spin.
Shane Watson and David Warner were forced to exert their own pace on the ball, and though Watson has had success against spin in the past, neither much enjoyed it. Oppositions had wondered what lay beyond the colossal top three, and Pakistan had figured a way to unhinge the vault. Both opener's dismissals hinted at frustration induced by a slower-than-usual scoring rates. At four runs an over Australia were hardly crawling, but the start was a sight more pedestrian than they had been used to in the tournament.
Australia rarely looked troubled by the turn or the bounce, but trouble found them when batsmen attempted the big strokes. Mike Hussey survived long enough to breach 20 - alone among his team-mates - but that is perhaps because he barely played a shot in anger until late in the match. Having arrived at the crease in the fourth over he did not hit his first boundary until the 15th. George Bailey perished trying to loft one over the infield, Cameron White was caught at long-on and Glenn Maxwell swung hard, but couldn't even clear backward point.
In between the dismissals, there was a steady trickle of runs. For a while Australia seemed to be awaiting the arrival of pace to make their charge, but when the fast bowling never came they were cornered into attacking spin, and no one but Hussey seemed equipped to do that.
"I don't think it's any great secret that we've had some deficiencies at times against spin and that probably showed tonight," Bailey said. "The fact that Pakistan played to that was tactically very astute from them. They had 18 overs of spin - I don't know if that's happened before in a Twenty20 game. I certainly think we've worked on it and we've got some very good players of spin as well. We managed to beat Pakistan in Dubai recently, so we can overcome it. But it was probably our shortcoming tonight."
Aside from their woes against spin, Australia must also address a middle order that seemed short on confidence in their first proper outing in the tournament. Between Nos 4, 5, 6 and 7, Australia's middle order made just 44, and each batsman was tentative at the outset, heaping extra pressure on themselves to catch up with boundaries as the required rate rose. Australia may not have lost more than three wickets in the four matches before this game, but they cannot rely on Watson to win a title by himself despite his monstrous form. As Pakistan coach Dav Whatmore had said before the match, even Watson can have a poor game.
"We hadn't had a hit in the middle, but it's not like we haven't hit a cricket ball for three weeks," Bailey said of the middle order. "I think everyone was prepared. Guys were getting starts, so I don't think guys looked out of place in the middle. The whole thing about Twenty20 and momentum meant that by the end of the six overs we were a long way behind where we needed to be as well, with the wicket slowing up a little bit.
"We probably also got caught going for that target and looking for the 112. As a group that's probably something that could have been communicated better between the batsmen."
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka