After the series win in South Africa in March, Australia's coach Darren Lehmann was asked about the difference between his team and the South Africans, who had spent 18 months as the No. 1-ranked Test side but were soon to be usurped by Australia. "Not afraid to lose," Lehmann said, "and trying to play the brand of cricket to win Test matches."
Lehmann loves those phrases. An aggressive brand, a daring brand, a brand the public wants. But it is a brand that, much like young Australian backpackers, gets frequently trashed on overseas trips. Under Mickey Arthur, Australia were crushed 4-0 in India last year. But Australia have generally lost to India over there; it was nothing unexpected. Australia don't lose to Pakistan; at least, not for a long time.
Twenty years it had been since Australia last lost a Test series to Pakistan and even then it was a close-run thing, the only result in the three-Test series a one-wicket margin. Here in the UAE, Michael Clarke's men were whitewashed and red-faced. A 2-0 scoreline does not begin to convey the gulf between the two sides.
Pakistan's spinners collectively claimed 28 wickets at 25.39; Australia's took 10 at 88.80. Pakistan's pace bowlers picked up nine wickets at 31.88; Australia's fast bowlers took 10 at 64.60. Pakistan's batsmen scored nine centuries in the series; Australia's made one.
Perhaps the most damning statistic was that the difference between Pakistan's collective batting average of 80.15 and Australia's of 25.65 was the all-time biggest gap in an Australian series defeat. They were comprehensively outbowled and outbatted. And they dropped 11 catches.
In Dubai, Australia couldn't work out what, if any, weaknesses Younis Khan had. They couldn't get the ball to reverse swing. They couldn't get it to spin much either, at least not in dangerous areas. They couldn't work out why Zulfiqar Babar turned some balls and not others. They couldn't find the patience to wait for balls that were safe to score from.
The selectors responded by dropping the No. 3 Alex Doolan and bringing in Glenn Maxwell, a limited-overs star who they thought would be even more "proactive" in moving the score along. He was in the first innings, with 37 from 28 deliveries. Then he played across the line, against the spin, closed the face and was bowled. "He played really well in the first innings until probably not a great shot," Lehmann said.
Everyone can say they play well until they get out. That they get out is precisely the point. Moving the score along wasn't the problem for Australia's batsmen, it was staying at the crease. Younis showed how important it was to gradually build an innings, three times. Azhar Ali proved the same thing twice.
Even Adam Gilchrist, arguably the most aggressive Test batsman Australia have ever produced, noted while in the UAE this week that sometimes you have to tone it down. "What Pakistan did was play good, old-fashioned, patient Test cricket," Gilchrist said of the Dubai Test. "We are a fast-paced cricket team and have been for decades. Attack is our best form of defence, but there are times when you have to realise the need to shut down."
But only three times throughout the series did an Australian batsman survive three hours at the crease; Steven Smith did it twice and David Warner once. Pakistan's batsmen did it 10 times. Think about how quickly a Twenty20 match is over - that's about three hours. Not long to expect a Test batsman to concentrate, is it?
When asked after day two whether Australia's batsmen could learn from the way Younis had played in the slow conditions, Brad Haddin responded in typical Australian fashion. "The guys have got to play their own way," he said. "If one of our batters batted eight hours it would be pretty good to watch."
Sure it would. But on a slow pitch, it was not going to happen. The fact is, none of Australia's batsmen came close to an eight-hour innings. Haddin has now played 10 Tests in Asia for a batting average of 20.52. He has not so much as scored a Test half-century on the continent. If Australia's vice-captain hasn't learnt that you must adjust your game to suit the conditions, then what hope do the younger players have?
"In Lehmann's eyes, South Africa may be conservative, but that is why they don't get beaten, and why they are the clear No. 1 team in the world"
Maybe more, because they are not set in their ways. The patient work of Smith and Mitchell Marsh was a highlight for Australia, and suggested that there might be members of this team who can learn and adapt. That at least is something to take from the wreckage.
The captain certainly tried to adapt in his thinking, but arguably too much. "You've got to be more aggressive at times, especially with your field placements because there's not much in the wicket," Clarke said after the Dubai loss. So within ten overs in Abu Dhabi he took out slips, then had a cordon of catchers in front of the wicket, then brought in a straight-hit fielder.
Australia's bowlers throughout the series created far too few chances, but were not helped by a constantly changing field. Plugging away at line and length with more standard support might have been boring, but it was worth a try. That Australia didn't spoke to their constant need to force the issue, to make things happen.
Anything works when you have men like Mitchell Johnson at your disposal to frighten the batsmen as in last summer's Ashes. That in turn allowed the batsmen licence to play aggressively, but it is also worth noting that in every first innings of that Ashes series, Haddin rescued the team from awkward top-order positions. Patient batting, relentless bowling - it may be boring, but it works.
South Africa have proven it. In Lehmann's eyes, they may be conservative, but that is why they don't get beaten, and why they are the clear No. 1 team in the world. South Africa have not lost a series anywhere away from home since 2006. That is a remarkable achievement. They can adapt to foreign conditions and move their approach up or down a gear to suit. At home, only Australia have beaten them in nearly ten years.
Anyway, Australia will now go home and play India, who they thrashed 4-0 last time on Australian shores. They'll probably beat Pakistan when they next visit Australia too. South Africa aside, the gap between teams' performances home and away seems to be growing wider than ever. It's lucky the Lehmann-Clarke Australians are not afraid to lose, because if they play this way they will lose often when they have to travel.
Their next Test trips to Asia are to Bangladesh next year and Sri Lanka in 2016. It's a good thing they don't lose to Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. But then, they thought that of Pakistan.