Top order failures a barrier to Australia progress
Brisbane, November 21, 2013: Australia are 6 for 132 on the first day of their home Ashes campaign. The top order has failed. Brad Haddin and Mitchell Johnson rescue them, push the total up to 295. Australia win.
Adelaide, December 5, 2013: Australia are 5 for 257 on a good pitch for batting. The top order has failed. Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke rescue them with centuries. Australia declare on 570. Australia win.
Perth, December 13, 2013: Australia are 5 for 143. The top order has failed. Brad Haddin and Steven Smith rescue them. The total reaches 385. Australia win.
Melbourne, December 27, 2013: Australia are 6 for 122. The top order has failed. Brad Haddin...
Sense a theme developing? The problem on the second day at the MCG was that Haddin tried to rescue Australia again but nobody joined him. By stumps they were 9 for 164, Haddin still there on 43. It was Australia's worst day of the series, only because Haddin and a variety of team-mates had saved others that could have been equally bad.
Australia's average first-innings total at the loss of their fifth wicket in this series has been 153. Only their stronger effort in Adelaide, on the best batting surface of the series, has allowed it to be that high. But by no standards is 5 for 153 a satisfactory average. It is reflective of poor top-order performances - decision-making, technique, patience, whatever.
It has been easy to forget because England's own batting has been abominable. Australia have a 3-0 lead and the Ashes. They could feasibly still complete a clean sweep. They will travel to South Africa in just over a month's time with the Urn safely theirs, confident in their form, confident they can return to No. 1, confident their darkest times are behind them and confident their attacking "brand" of cricket is the right one.
But South Africa are not England. Attack South Africa, or counterattack against them, and you may well find yourself in a bigger hole than when you began. Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander are the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked Test bowlers in the world for a reason. They are unrelenting.
On the drop-in pitch at the MCG, the ball didn't come on to the bat, forcing several batsmen into poorly chosen shots. England also bowled much more consistently than they have so far in this series. But Adelaide was a good batting pitch. So was Perth in the first innings. So was Brisbane. Four stunted first-innings performances in a row is not a coincidence, it is a discernible trend.
David Warner's biggest runs have all come in the second innings with hefty leads. George Bailey is yet to play a knock of real importance and averages 15.75 in the first innings. Chris Rogers gets himself in and then gets himself out. Clarke and Smith have at least each made a first-innings hundred.
Shane Watson's only substantial performance at No. 3 in this series came in the second innings in Perth, where Australia had a huge lead and Watson was given licence to slog. At the MCG, he drove loosely outside off and was caught behind for 10. His lbw problem has disappeared but been replaced by mediocre shot selection - he is constantly edging behind the wicket or picking out fielders.
If Australia get out of their MCG mire, as they have managed to do so far in this series, their batting problems will be forgotten again. But they should take another top-order collapse as a cautionary tale.
Cape Town, November 10, 2011: Australia are 5 for 18. They struggle, then wobble, then panic against high-class seam and swing bowling. Brad Haddin is at the crease. Brad Haddin shimmies down the pitch and away to leg, tries to smash Philander over cover and edges behind. Brad Haddin is no longer at the crease. Australia are 6 for 18. Then they are 7 for 21, 8 for 21, 9 for 21. Somehow their last pair gets them to 47.
Australia: Brad Haddin will not always rescue you.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here