Pak v Aus, 2nd MCC Spirit of Cricket Test, Headingley, 1st day July 21, 2010

Clouded thinking hurts Australia during dark day

As the dark, gloomy weather descended on Headingley late in the afternoon, the Australians drifted from the ground thankful to see the end of one of their grimmest days. Ricky Ponting has had some tough experiences as Test captain, but it's hard to recall an Australian team under his leadership enduring a worse day than this.

In terms of significance, decisive Ashes occasions like the second day at The Oval last year or the first at Edgbaston in 2005 are at the top of the list. But for a single, self-contained day of Test cricket, this was terrible. Australia were all out for 88, their lowest Test total in 26 years, and Pakistan passed the score with one wicket down.

Yes, the Australians can say they have a chance. At the SCG in January they were in a remarkably similar position and somehow Pakistan handed the match back. To expect the same result again is to anticipate predictability from Pakistan, and that's never a wise move.

The Australians will be left to wonder if they made the wrong decision to bat first. Ever since Ponting infamously sent England in at Edgbaston five years ago with a McGrath-less attack, batting first has been almost a Pavlovian response when the coin falls his way.

Even when logic dictates - as it did on a Sydney greentop in January or February 2009 on a Johannesburg pitch described by Michael Hussey as having branches growing off it - that bowling first is the logical move. Even when it means playing into the hands of the opposition.

The Australians never like to cede control of a Test and they feel that by bowling first, they are doing just that. They often speak of focusing on their own plans and not concerning themselves with their opponents. It's an approach that looks pigheaded when it fails.

Against a Pakistan team whose strength clearly is swing bowling, batting first under overcast skies after overnight rain defied common sense, especially given the inexperience of the Pakistan batting line-up. As Ponting himself said two days before the Test, "in Pakistan you don't generally see the ball seam around and swing around like it did last week".

So why not subject their batsmen to those hardships? Umar Gul said he was surprised at Ponting's decision, and that the Pakistanis were ready to bowl first had they won the toss. Australia's coach Tim Nielsen said the idea of sending Pakistan in was discussed, but they felt the pitch would deteriorate later in the week. The match might not get that far.

Perhaps the coin-flip didn't matter. Truth be told, Australia were outplayed in every department. When their bowlers were given a chance in the afternoon they did not display the guile and skill shown by their Pakistan counterparts. Whereas Mohammad Asif had deceived batsmen with a sequence of outswingers followed by an inswinger, the Australians possessed no such patience.

They tried to take a wicket every ball, without building to a plan. Ben Hilfenhaus bowled too straight and often saw the ball whipped through leg, while Mitchell Johnson was erratic. The bowlers say the right things about working in England - they know they must pitch it up and allow the ball to swing - but too many deliveries were banged in short of a length.

Nor did the batsmen handle the conditions with complete composure. They reached forward against the swinging ball, hoping to negate the movement but at times that exacerbated the issue, as they allowed themselves no time to adjust when the ball swerved late.

The innings was over in less than three hours, and not since 1984-85 had Australia scored so few. That was against a vintage West Indian attack at the WACA, on a day when Michael Holding, Joel Garner and Malcolm Marshall were so fearsome that Courtney Walsh didn't even have to bowl. You can bet on that occasion they weren't pitching it up and searching for swing.

Australia's SCG memories will sustain them into the second day at Headingley. They know the sun will rise again - they just hope there'll be plenty of clouds as well.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo

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