New team writes fresh chapter of old story

Marnus Labuschagne stood transfixed on the crease. He looked down the pitch at the umpire Richard Kettleborough, who had raised his finger to rule him out, caught off bat and pad for a second-ball duck on debut. The double noise and deflection were obvious, the Pakistani celebration spontaneous. But Labuschagne stood there, unable to walk off for a moment. This wasn't dissent. It was shock.

The numbness felt by Labuschagne, the Australian side's junior-most member, was mirrored across the team as they fell apart for the umpteenth time against the spinning and reverse-swinging ball. Not in the hands of Yasir Shah and Wahab Riaz, known and respected quantities, but Bilal Asif and Mohammad Abbas, the sorts of talents that always seem to be lurking in a Pakistani domestic system with far more depth than Australia's. All 10 of the touring team's wickets were lost for 60 runs, with them effectively the match.

Depth was what Australia's effort needed to be built upon in this series, given the suspensions of Steven Smith and David Warner, and the rehab plans of Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins. Three of that quartet were in Sydney for Fox Sports' launch as Australian cricket's host broadcaster, and all were left wincing in the same manner as the many thousands of Australian cricket watchers and listeners on television and web radio while they witnessed the promise of an opening stand worth 142 broken by the shallowness beneath.

This team, led by Tim Paine, coached by Justin Langer, selected by metrics like hundreds scored and frequency of scores over 30, pared down by assessments of character and willingness to do the team thing, bound by a new charter of agreed behaviours, was supposed to be a new one. Australia, we were told, had gone on a journey of introspection and education since the Newlands scandal, to a place where "character over cover drives" and team above all else, were non-negotiable. This was epitomised by the choices of three debutants, in Aaron Finch, Travis Head and Labuschagne, who were all deemed outstanding young men.

Others had fallen short of the required standards, be it Peter Handscomb amid technical changes, or Glenn Maxwell amid being Glenn Maxwell. There had even been a late decision to make an example of Matt Renshaw, who recovered well from a concussion only to be told he had not done enough in terms of training and attitude to prove himself worthy. Instead of forming part of the top six, Renshaw joined Ashton Agar in exhausting fielding drills during the breaks, followed by skills work to test their resilience when fatigued.

Dealing with fatigue was certainly something Australia's batsmen had to contemplate across nearly two days in the field. After the pacemen Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle had toiled admirably, and the spin bowlers Nathan Lyon and Jon Holland without great effect, Finch and Usman Khawaja did well to get through the final 13 overs of day two despite tired legs and minds. When they carried on through the third morning, it seemed momentarily that Australia did possess the required resilience.

As mature cricketers, despite the latter's lack of previous Test experience, Khawaja and Finch had both been exemplars of the Langer regime. Each worked assiduously to get himself fitter than ever, losing weight and gaining endurance to bat time and also field more freely. For most of the morning they found an ideal balance between attack and defence, enjoying a modicum of good fortune, not least when a Khawaja bat-pad appeal was given not out and then not reviewed, despite replays showing an inside edge.

With Pakistan's captain Sarfraz Ahmed spending much of his morning bickering with the umpire Richard Illingworth, it had seemed that Australia might be able to gain a foothold in the match. But with the ball spinning, bouncing and reversing on a tinder dry surface, it always felt as though one wicket would bring more - finding the one would be the trick. So in time honoured fashion, Pakistan's bowlers tightened up their lines, Sarfraz set straight fields and patience was played upon, either side of lunch.

Eventually, the chance came: Asad Shafiq good enough to hang on to a very low catch at short mid-on when Finch strained to hit Abbas through the line of the ball. Finch, then, had been bored out, a dismissal needing due credit to the fielding side, but also awareness that in Test cricket, especially in these parts, a greater level of ruthlessness is required. Why? The next two or so hours provided Australia's painful answer.

Shaun Marsh, a little inattentively, drove at Bilal's tempter and edged out of the rough to slip. Khawaja, so prosperous on the sweep of both orthodox and reverse varieties, misread Bilal's length and offered a wretched top-edge to short leg. Head, who had struggled enormously against spin in the past, offered another hard-handed drive at an offbreak and edged to second slip. And Labuschagne, in the very same over, was unable to be precise enough in footwork or judgement to avoid a bat-pad catch.

Those wickets, plus a dropped return chance by Yasir from Mitchell Marsh's hard hands, more or less told the tale of the day. Paine and the tail were never likely to mount a sustained challenge in such circumstances. Pakistan built their lead for the loss of three wickets in the fading Dubai light, showing that conditions had become more difficult for batting, but not 10 for 60 difficult.

So how did a new Australian team, so much more mentally and physically prepared for the task, add another fresh chapter to an old and familiar story of brittleness, now stretching to seven losses of 10 wickets for fewer than 100 runs since the start of the 2016 Sri Lanka tour? The lack of Smith and Warner naturally contributed, but so did a wider issue, one that is beyond the reach of Langer, Paine or the Simon Longstaff and Rick McCosker-led cultural reviews soon to be released.

That issue surrounds the production line of talent, and the way young players are schooled. Australia once led the world in this respect, and now lag behind many. Money does not appear to have helped, nor the centralisation of power and decision-making at CA. All are issues above the station of Labuschagne, who could not really have done things any other way.