Australians shine but in the wrong place
Australia's selectors could hardly be blamed for casting a yearning eye towards South Africa. It is there that two former mainstays of the Australian top-order, Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist, have tenderised IPL bowling attacks at a time when the national one-day batting line-up has struggled for any semblance of authority or consistency.
Consider this: in each of their past five one-day internationals, Australia have suffered major batting collapses. Prior to their disastrous passage in Dubai on Wednesday, during which Shahid Afridi and Saeed Ajmal claimed a combined 8-27 between the 19th and 31st overs, the Australians had endured batting sequences of 3-15 (Johannesburg), 3-14 and 4-11 (Port Elizabeth), 3-17 (Cape Town) and 5-19 (Centurion). They have lost four of those matches. No surprises there.
In South Africa, Australia's collapses were born largely out of frustration after extended periods of restricted scoring. In Dubai, the implosion was due to a failure to pick Afridi's wrong-un and Ajmal's doosra. The result has been a stunning freefall from the top of the one-day rankings to third. And should Pakistan sweep the five-match UAE series, the Australians will find themselves mired in fourth place, their lowest position since the ranking system was introduced in 2002.
The fortunes of Hayden and Gilchrist, meanwhile, could not contrast more sharply with those of their former teammates. A run of low-scoring convinced Hayden to walk away from the international game three months ago, but now, free from the pressures that weighed so heavily upon his shoulders, the veteran opener has powered his way to second on the IPL's run-scoring list with the Chennai Super Kings. Gilchrist, too, has been in bludgeoning form, thumping five sixes en route to a 45-ball innings of 71 against a Bangalore attack that included Dale Steyn and Anil Kumble - all while the Australians were stumbling to defeat against Pakistan.
Much like their spin bowling department, Australia's selectors are now attempting to rebuild a limited overs top-order in the knowledge that their best and most seasoned candidates are no longer available to them. The recurrence of Shaun Marsh's left hamstring injury will presumably make that task all the more difficult, and should the intermittent form of veterans Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke continue, Andrew Hilditch's panel could be faced with further difficult decisions ahead of the next World Cup.
Much work is required. High on Tim Nielsen's to-do list in the coming months will be a thorough review of his batsmen's strategies to spin bowling. Roelof van der Merwe and Johan Botha were most successful in drying up Australia's scoring rates in the middle overs, while Afridi and Ajmal confounded them with prodigious turn - the former bowling three batsmen through the gate with googlies, the latter skittling Nathan Hauritz shouldering arms.
None of the Australian batsmen - even top-scorers James Hopes, Brad Haddin and Shane Watson - appeared comfortable against the turning ball on a Dubai pitch grown from imported Pakistani soil. Ajmal, like the soil, hails from the Punjab region, and the right-armer could not have appeared more at home as he turned numerous deliveries away from Australia's befuddled top-order. And Afridi was simply devastating.
Cricket scribes have recently learned that writing off an Australian team is fraught with peril, but the troubling signs from an admittedly travel-weary one-day side are impossible to ignore. A massive effort is required to turn this series around and rediscover their batting form of yore. Perhaps a quick glance at the forthcoming Chennai-Deccan match might prove instructive.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo