Australia's ageing game plan badly executed

Australia's coach Darren Lehmann was in relaxed mood in Australia's practice session ahead of the Melbourne Test Getty Images

In the aftermath of Australia's Champions Trophy elimination last year, their coach Darren Lehmann scoffed at the suggestion that his team had something to learn about the way the ODI format was now being played by England. "They are starting to take the way we played, not vice-versa," Lehmann said. "When they win a World Cup, then we can take the way they play."

These words recalled nothing so much as those of Bob Simpson, who coached Australia to success at the 1987 World Cup, only to see his team eliminated without even making the semi-finals in 1992. "It's not our thinking that needs revamping," Simpson said after two early defeats to New Zealand and South Africa, "it's the fact that we've wavered from what's made us a great one-day side. One of the interesting things is that we've been done by two teams who have copied us totally and utterly."

Seven months on from Lehmann's observations, and Australia have won one of seven 50-over matches since. Following a third consecutive loss to England, on Friday in Brisbane, the captain Steven Smith said he had no answers for why this was so. "I don't know the answer to that - I wish I did," Smith said. "I think in probably the last 10 games we've actually got ourselves into some reasonable positions - we just haven't been able to take advantage of them."

Smith, of course, had opened up discussion about the way Australia are approaching ODIs by remarking, with somewhat more candour than Lehmann, that his side may have to look more closely at what England have been doing particularly with the bat. This, in itself, is progress from the attitude exhibited at the Champions Trophy. But as Jonny Bairstow has noted, to make a major adaptation is a more difficult process than simply saying you should do so.

As a World Cup winning coach, Lehmann has some cause to cling to the way the Australians were victorious in 2015. They attacked in the early overs through David Warner and Aaron Finch, aimed to have one member of the top four - also featuring Smith and his predecessor Michael Clarke - go on to a big score, and then launched in the last 20 overs of the innings through the likes of Shane Watson (tournament strike rate 106.12), Brad Haddin (157.5) and particularly Glenn Maxwell (an eye-popping 182.02).

In the field, Australia leaned heavily on the pace of Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Johnson, with the remainder of the overs shared between James Faulkner, Maxwell and Watson. Xavier Doherty, the lone specialist spin bowler in the squad, played only a single match, in which he bowled seven expensive and wicketless overs. Aggression with the bat and speed with the ball - Lehmann called it "brave cricket", which it was - were key. Finch described it as follows:

"We've talked about it a lot in terms of that middle-order batting. When we were having quite a bit of success, we had a guy, one of the top four, going on and getting a really big hundred. When you've got guys constantly changing in the side, it can be hard to get a real partnership, especially with guys you haven't batted with a hell of a lot. It's time to just do it a bit more often. That's one spot Steven and Darren have both identified quite critically in the past, and rightfully so. We know that's something we have to improve and change. It's up to the individual to make sure you're still sticking true to your own game plan and making sure that when the game is there to be taken on you don't second guess yourself."

But in trying to rework the team ahead of the 2019 World Cup in England - Clarke, Watson, Haddin have retired, while Maxwell, Faulkner and George Bailey are no longer in favour - the apparent clarity of that gameplan has been lost, at the same time other teams are honing their own to reach higher levels of proficiency. Australia are currently batting without any great sense of purpose or plan, beyond wanting simply to stay in the middle and see what happens from there. It is a syndrome that, oddly, is affecting players who should be sure of their places and therefore confident to attack.

At the Gabba, on a surface far more immediately friendly to batsmen than the MCG had been, Warner and Finch seemed content just to let things tick over after some early boundaries, whereupon the former contrived to get out playing a dinky shot to Moeen Ali. As he had done in Melbourne, Finch seemed to have set himself to bat time and make a hundred, but that then allowed further momentum to be lost when it was apparent that Smith thought this was how he was going to play, too.

Upon Smith's dismissal, Travis Head, who has been unable to make the No. 4 spot his own, was similarly mired against tight, busy England bowling. These struggles meant that when Mitchell Marsh came in to bat at No. 5 - a diversion from the official Australian batting order though there is conjecture over whether he was always set to bat there - he was, as in Melbourne, trying to "reset" the innings without taking risks. For Head, Marsh, Marcus Stoinis, Cameron White and Alex Carey or Tim Paine there are legitimate grounds for them not to play "brave cricket", for they are simply trying to establish themselves. Stoinis has emphasised the importance of adapting to the various phases of an innings.

"If I'm batting in the middle order, it's either re-build something and try and get to a certain stage to then have another crack at the end. Or it's coming in when we're in a good position and have a crack as if it's a Twenty20," Stoinis said. "There have always been targets for your first 15, your middle overs and you're last 10 or 15. But you've got to be adaptable, read the game and change with the game. You've got to understand the situation. The more experience you get, the better you get at that sort of thing."

Rather than pointing the finger at the middle order that lost 6 for 62 in the final 11 overs at the Gabba, greater scrutiny must be placed upon Warner, Finch and Smith in particular, as well-entrenched members of the team who must know that by simply batting "normally" they are placing pressure on the less certain players further down the batting order. The way they are trying to play would make sense in the knowledge that accomplished aggressors like Haddin, Maxwell and Watson lay in wait to attack in the latter overs. But their unwillingness to take the attack to the bowlers is heaping pressure on the rest and, in the same breath, being made to look ponderous by England's hyper-aggression.

In both Melbourne and Brisbane, Eoin Morgan's team were able to grab the initiative with the bat by chasing early boundaries and not being cowed by early wickets - two in the first six overs at the MCG and one in the very first over at the Gabba. Bairstow, Jason Roy and Alex Hales have a clear commission to put pressure on the bowlers, and are doing so without apparent anxiety about making a mistake or losing their spot in the team. From there, Joe Root is on hand at Nos. 3 or 4 to provide direction for the innings, working the ball around and running between the wickets hard without going for big shots.

On the face of it, Smith would seem ideally suited to take on a similar role. But that can only work if Warner or Finch is more willing to go on the offensive like Roy or Bairstow, and if Australia have a deep enough batting line-up to recover in the case of early wickets being fallen due to the risks being taken. Though he has not been in the best form recently, Morgan's value to England is summed up by his versatility, able to charge at bowlers after the fashion of Roy but also able to work the ball around in the manner of Root if needed. Interestingly, Maxwell has found himself out of the side through mounting frustration at his inability to be similarly malleable to the team's requirements, yet the 2015 World Cup aptly demonstrated his destructive value when feeling comfortable in his skin - a strong relationship with Watson helped.

In the field, the greatest weakness appears to be the lack of investment in a specialist spin bowler to tease and restrict through the middle of an innings while also posing a wicket-taking threat. After Doherty was discarded, Adam Zampa emerged as Smith's preferred option, but he too is now only an occasional choice. All the while, Nathan Lyon has grown and improved, but still lacks opportunities to show his value in ODI colours. Whoever the selectors decide upon, they need to offer them a more consistent tenure, meaning that as in Test cricket, the selection of a spin bowler is seen as a necessity rather than a luxury. If not, there will be more days like the Gabba, where Zampa was ignored despite a dry, spinning pitch staring everyone in the face.

For Smith's part, he has been honest about his own ODI shortcomings in recent times, and on Friday night expressed a desire to maintain the 2015 game plan. "I definitely think I have got a lot of room for improvement," he said. "I don't think I have been playing one-day cricket as I could for the last couple of series. I have pretty high expectations of myself, and I haven't been living up to them recently. I have got to start nailing it down. I have got a few starts but I haven't been going on with them. We talk about the top four doing the bulk of the work in the middle and leaving the power to the back end. We have got to fix that up."

Intriguingly, the uncertain injury status of Chris Lynn may be helping to prevent the Australians from genuinely testing a different batting model. Selected for the Champions Trophy, Lynn stayed on the sidelines amid doubts about whether his shoulder was up to the rigours of playing. Similarly, he was rushed back into the squad for this series, only to be ruled out by a calf strain. Had he been available, there is every chance Lynn may well have been tried as an enforcing No. 3 batsman, with Smith shuffling down to No. 4.

There is still time for this configuration to be worked on before next year's World Cup, but whatever way the Australians go, they will need to find both greater clarity in terms of the role they're expected to play and a stronger sense of playing for one another if they are to be contenders. Otherwise Lehmann, having already flagged his exit after the 2019 tournament, will usher in a successor needing to do exactly what he prescribed.