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Match Analysis

Australia's batting, a cry for help

Confronted with a spin riddle in Galle, Australia's batsmen tried a variety of approaches to counter it. All of them failed

Adam Voges' innings featured a surprising number of reverse-sweeps, the last of which led to his downfall  •  Associated Press

Adam Voges' innings featured a surprising number of reverse-sweeps, the last of which led to his downfall  •  Associated Press

At the height of Shane Warne's powers, one of Australia's Ashes celebration rituals was to sing along to Midnight Oil's Beds Are Burning - with a twist. The chorus belted out in unison went something along the lines of "Poms are crap when the wicket's turning". Whether Sri Lanka's music scene has unearthed an Oils-style anthem is unclear, but the hosts had every right to mark their second-ever series victory over Australia in a similar manner.
Like Alec Stewart and Michael Atherton climbing the Gabba gantry to watch Warne after being dismissed by him in 1994, the Australians are not falling short through a lack of desire to succeed. On the third and final morning of the Galle Test, almost everyone hit the nets and tried to find a way to negotiate the day ahead.
The result of this last-minute cramming was a potpourri of batting approaches, and an equally diverse range of dismissals. In that sense there was the vaguest sense of progress: it could, at least, be said that not every batsman fell the same way.
Admittedly, David Warner kicked it off with an lbw to a straight ball, but Steven Smith squeezed a short-leg catch coming down the pitch, Mitchell Marsh padded up to a sharp turner, and the last recognised batsman, Adam Voges, reversed swept his way to oblivion, sending his batting average under 80 for the first time.
The replacement of monotony with variety did not do much to change the final result. Australia were still bowled out cheaply, the batsmen still fell short of meaningful scores, and Sri Lanka maintained their cavernous advantage in terms of knowledge and aptitude in spin-friendly conditions.
Afterwards, Angelo Mathews offered that Australia's batsmen "look a bit lost", and delivered it with a tone verging on the sympathetic. One got the feeling Mathews might actually have preferred a closer contest, in which the opposition lasted more than 84 overs across two innings.
Given that Australia were "chasing" a target so far beyond their current capability, their batsmen seemed to abandon whatever plans they took into the series and had a go at something new for future assignments. Never was this more evident than in Voges' innings, a bizarre spectacle given the almost mystical calm he had managed to show at times over the past 15 months. After making a start in Pallekele, Voges said his plan was to occupy the crease. Three innings later, he was premeditating reverse sweeps with alarming frequency.
This had started with Voges' very first ball from Dilruwan Perera. While that initial effort brought a boundary, his timing and judgment deteriorated with each attempt until he was bowled behind his pads. Like Warner's reverse sweep with the scoreboard reading 18 for 3 the previous evening, it all smacked of batsmen who had been very swiftly hollowed out by the Asian experience, to the point that their modus operandi resembled one of the maxims once beamed onto big screens of U2's ZOOTV tour: "Everything you know is wrong."
"It is sort of instinct," Smith said of his batsmen's methods. "All the guys growing up in Australia, the majority of wickets that we play on, they're pretty true. You don't often see too many spinning past the bat or the one that does go straight, it doesn't speed up off the wicket as such. So it's certainly a lot easier to play spin in Australia. We have to find ways of doing it differently.
"The way we came out today and took the game on a little bit - a couple of the guys went over the top, showed a bit of courage, got the field back, a couple of sweep shots, reverse sweeps, it sort of unsettles the bowler a little bit. And you're scoring at the same time, which is important in these conditions. If you're sitting on the crease trying to defend, more often than not one's going to have your name on it. So you have to find a way to score at the same time as being out there."
Smith admitted Australia's plans were reworked after watching Sri Lanka's batsmen who, with little Test-match experience or advance billing, had offered a variety of means to combat Australia's spinners. The best and most contrasting exponents had been Kusal Mendis and the captain Mathews, the former sweeping Nathan Lyon's spin consistently, the latter hitting out gamely rather than waiting around for the unplayable ball.
"I think some of the boys have learned a little bit from the way the Sri Lankan batters have played," Smith said. "We saw a lot of sweep shots from them, reverse sweeps, so I think the guys have learned a little bit from watching them play and having their own plans and courage to implement them out in the middle. It's never easy when the ball is spinning and skidding and you don't know which one is which, with guys around the bat. It's difficult, but I guess you have to have the courage to find the way to do it."
Such experiments, however, called into question the approaches taken into this series. These were supposedly honed over a period of up to three weeks for those squad members who spent time in India before arriving in Colombo. The coach Darren Lehmann has said that the batsmen were guilty of not sticking to their plans under pressure, but the grab-bag seen on day three was the strongest possible indicator that no one in this team trusts his earlier judgment.
This calls into question the work of those around the team, whether that be Lehmann, the interim batting coach on this tour Stuart Law, or the man Law is temporarily replacing - the promoted former fielding coach Greg Blewett. The position of batting assistant has bounced around a lot since the exit of Michael Di Venuto earlier in the year, with Graeme Hick taking the reins for an ODI tour of the West Indies. Lehmann and the team performance manager Pat Howard have both insisted Blewett's promotion is temporary, but have not set a timeframe on a full-time appointee.
Given the ugly extremes of this trip, it would appear essential that a full-time batting mentor with significant experience of playing and coaching in Asia must be hired in time for the home summer. The appointed figure - ideally a player and coach the calibre of Mahela Jayawardene or Michael Hussey - would need to work with the Australians, build relationships and also to ensure the players keep next year's India tour in the back of their minds. To venture to India straight after a home summer of bouncier, pace-oriented pitches will be an even harder task than this one.
Yet even if that kind of appointment is made swiftly, Australia seem likely to be facing the problems of Pallekele and Galle for some time to come. The selection chairman Rod Marsh and the commentator Allan Border can recall the indignities of the 1982 tour of Pakistan, when the touring team was thumped 3-0 and was never really in the contest. That trip was the low point of a 23-year span when Australia won only one Test match in Asia. With one win from 17 matches in the region dating back to 2008, and a live streak of eight consecutive defeats, Australia are again building a dynasty of the dreadful. Not even the England teams terrified by Warne did that badly.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig