Anybody searching for signs of Australian vulnerability – which is the whole of England – was fully rewarded yesterday. With the Ashes only four months away, Australia were bowled out for 88 in the second Test against Pakistan in Leeds.
It was Australia's lowest total in 25 years and displayed a fragility and uncertainty against high-class swing bowling which is bound to cast a long shadow. The conditions were hardly in favour of batting after heavy overnight rain in Yorkshire was followed by overcast morning skies, but it was still an utterly stunning collapse after their captain, Ricky Ponting, chose to bat on winning the toss.
Given the prize at stake in a few months' time, there is bound to be speculation, both informed and wild, that Australia's batting is reaching the end of the road at the wrong time. Tim Nielsen, their coach, conceded that it had been a poor day but did not give the impression that, looking ahead, there was much to ponder.
"It's not a worry," he said. "I prefer we were exposed to these experiences now than that the first time it happens is in an Ashes series which everybody is going to be focusing on. We've got a couple of young blokes playing in their second Test match, a young bowling attack and a group of five or six players who are just starting their careers.
"It's exciting for them to be exposed to this sort of pressure and understand that Test match cricket is a difficult game. Whoever you're playing, wherever you're playing it's not just about turning up and winning, it's about playing well and playing hard for five days."
Inexperienced though some of Australia's side are, the six men at the top of the order are the six they have pencilled to play the first Test against England in November. None made more than 16 and four were out in single figures as Pakistan's seam trio of Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Umar Gul controlled the swinging ball with rare delicacy. Whatever else Headingley was yesterday, it was not an 88 all out pitch.
Umar Gul, who took 2 for 16 in nine delightfully probing overs, said Pakistan had been surprised when Ponting decided to bat. "The ball was swinging a lot and we knew we could create pressure," he said.
Defeated by 150 runs in the first Test at Lord's last week and coming into this with yet another new captain, Salman Butt, his predecessor Shahid Afridi having resigned after one match, Pakistan assumed a wholly united front. Butt was not afraid to take his bowlers off even when they were so dominant and, in what proved to be an inspired move, brought on 20-year-old batsman Umar Amin, who promptly took a wicket.
Nielsen said: "Any day you've got 88 in total next to your 11 batsmen is not a good day. We were never in the contest at all. Any time we had even a smell of getting a partnership going, and that wasn't often, we lost another wicket. They bowled beautifully in conditions that were set up nicely for them and we weren't good enough to stop the rot. I reckon it's a nice change for people watching, because we often see the batsman dominate."
Unfortunately for those who backed this neutral series, including the Yorkshire county club and the sponsors, MCC, too few people turned up to watch. The crowd at Headingley for a memorable day's cricket was a paltry 4,000. Yorkshire stand to lose several hundred thousand pounds for staging the Test match.
The last time Australia managed a lower total was against the then rampant West Indies in 1984 and it was their seventh-lowest total batting first. They will doubtless fight back, but the days of Australian impregnability have gone.Reuse content