Too much on too few for Australia
This is what happens to Australia when Michael Hussey and Shane Watson fail. Following the bowler-inspired revival in Perth last week, the real Australia re-emerged after Hussey and Watson were unable to carry the batting line-up. Australia are currently so reliant on them and Brad Haddin at No.7 that it's three-out, all-out. Today that left them with 98 in 42.5 overs and by the end of a Boxing Day to forget they were wicket-less and 59 behind.
Hussey is having a fantastic series with 525 runs and Watson is in the middle of a solid one, but they picked bad times for their first single-figures contributions of the campaign. Not that this embarrassment was their fault. Just that with no superhero in the middle order with a cape marked H, and no muscular start from Watson, the side face-planted on the biggest occasion of the cricket calendar.
It is not possible for two batsmen to cover for a top six throughout a five-match contest. Ricky Ponting (93), Michael Clarke (135), Phillip Hughes (30) and Steven Smith (49) have combined for less runs in the series than Watson's 298. That has left a cavern for Hussey, Watson and Haddin to attempt to patch up, but today they ran out of putty.
Buoyed by their stunning WACA performance, which looks more like a fluke with every session in Melbourne, Australia started on equal terms with England but quickly fell back through indiscipline and poor technique. Having been delivered a surface with life, they seemed to forget that their run-makers would have to survive against the moving ball, a perennial weakness. Sent in to deal with the seaming conditions, the batsmen kept aiming drives through cover instead of playing straight, edging to the cordon one lemming at a time.
Bowlers are told to feed the slips and England's were sated with eight of the ten catches, with the other two going to Kevin Pietersen at gully. Watson popped an edge to Pietersen after being dropped twice on the way to 5 while Hughes swung fiercely but misguidedly at one going away from him. He had spent an hour attempting to avoid such risk. Ponting started cautiously and correctly, ultimately doing well to get a nick on a Chris Tremlett ball that lifted and darted towards the slips. From 3 for 37, things really turned ugly.
Hussey survived a couple of close lbw calls until driving at one going away eight minutes from lunch. Smith arrived to play and miss badly from his only ball before rain sent the players off and he was even less convincing when he returned. Only 21, Smith will be a fine cricketer in the future, but he owns a limited-overs technique and is desperate to follow the ball when it curves. When he saw James Anderson's delivery leaving him he kept chasing it and was caught behind. More is expected from a Test No.6 in this type of situation.
Five for 66 became 6 for 77 when Clarke did the same thing as Smith, reaching for a ball he could have left. Haddin drove hard and nicked to first slip while Mitchell Johnson was caught behind at the same score. In the end, 98 was better than expected.
Such is the current frailty of the batting that it's only necessary to look back six months for a smaller Australian total. They made 88 after winning the toss against Pakistan in Leeds in July when the ball seamed and swung. It has been a horrible year for the batsmen, whose first day of 2010 included them being dismissed for 127.
The order has drifted with the ailing form of Ponting, a captain under immense pressure as he moves closer to becoming the second Australian to lose three Test series against England. Ponting finished the day fielding at mid-off due to his broken little finger and at times in his lonely position must have wondered if he would have been better off staying away.
While he is a brave leader who will live with the consequences, he is now desperate for runs from a group that can't be depended on to provide them. Ponting has become one of the unreliable, a shadow of his great days as a world-beating No.3. His men say they adore him, but not enough of them have been playing to keep him in charge. Last week Ponting experienced the fantasy of an Australian Ashes revival. Today he was back in reality.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo