A full-scale search was launched last night for any Australians who could bat. It looked as though an all-points bulletin might have to be issued to the emergency coaching services for it to have any hope of success.
The day which was billed as the shoot-out for places in the first Test next week ended in disaster for the nominated candidates. Across the country, batsmen, whether guaranteed places in Brisbane or trying desperately to convince the selectors of their credentials, went to the crease and left again in a crash that may come to be known as Black Wednesday.
For England, it was another day of serious consolidation, and after being greeted with a sporting pitch in Hobart their second-string bowling attack undermined the claims of Australia A's players to a place in the Test team. Five wickets fell before lunch on the Bellerive Oval pitch which looked as though it had been constructed exactly to the specifications of seam and swing bowlers.
Ajmal Shahzad was the most outstanding of the tourists' fast-bowling trio, taking the ball threateningly across the left-handers, and he might have created havoc in the morning. Chris Tremlett's bounce showed why England have revisited him and Tim Bresnan produced one beauty in particular which showed why England are reluctant to leave him. To cap it all Monty Panesar bowled 20 tidy successive overs and took a memorable catch.
England's first-string, on their way to acclimatise in Brisbane, could only watch and wonder before their flight. Australia A were bowled out for 230 in 80.1 overs. The day, and the way the tour is running, was exemplified, astonishingly, by Panesar's diving catch at mid-wicket with his weaker right hand.
It was taken from a full-blooded pull by the solicitous Tasmanian Ed Cowan and it seemed to show that nothing can go wrong for England (though there is time). There was to be a recovery of sorts, managed by Steve Smith, the only player in Australia's Test squad to make any sort of impression anywhere, but it could not disguise the general shortcomings.
By way of instigating serious competition for places in their troubled order, the Australian selectors named a top-heavy squad of 17 players on Monday, stopping just short of including a member of their own panel, Greg Chappell, who has a Test average of 53 but is 62 years old.
It backfired spectacularly and by the end of the day nobody could have been any the wiser. If they could not make up their minds before yesterday's games, nothing that happened could have pushed them closer to judgement.
In the Sheffield Shield both men whose places are most at risk failed. Mike Hussey, who is clinging on to his place by increasingly frayed fingertips, managed an 18-ball duck for Western Australia. Marcus North, whose qualifications to play Test cricket have been questioned almost from the day he made the side, was out for 17.
The batsmen most obviously in the frame to replace them, Usman Khawaja and Callum Ferguson, were trapped on a green top where Australia A made their biggest mistake by losing the toss. It was evident pretty early why England's captain, Andrew Strauss, had decided to bowl first.
But everywhere, Australia's batsmen crumbled. New South Wales, with three of Australia's top seven, were bowled out for 97 by Tasmania. Shane Watson and Simon Katich, openers for state and country, made 6 and 1 – with Katich also straining a shoulder while fielding – and the wicketkeeper Brad Haddin 10. On a spiteful pitch Tasmania fared no better and Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, made a mere seven as they tumbled to 66 for 6.
The pitches in a damp start to the Australian summer were clearly connected to the performances but the selectors might have expected someone, somewhere, to contend with them. All who have visited the Gabba, where the opening match in the Ashes will be played, have suggested that it will offer encouragement to fast bowlers, and on the evidence of yesterday a finish inside five days is not improbable.
Smith has given the Australian selectors pause for thought. In the squad as one of the spin candidates, his uninhibited batting might persuade them to alter the preferred balance of their side. Since they patently do not know, it is difficult for anybody else to second guess them. He had to work hard after coming in at 68 for 5 but responded with a forceful counter-attacking innings.
What a start England had, as if the men who will not play in the first Test next week were intent on showing the team management that they have been overlooked too easily. The tourists changed their entire attack from the first two matches, with the intended first-choice Test quartet, Jimmy Anderson, Stuart Broad, Steve Finn and Graeme Swann, all flying to Brisbane.
Tremlett made the first breakthrough in his second over with a steeply rising ball to the former Australian wonderboy, Phil Hughes, which he edged hard to first slip where Strauss made no fuss about taking the catch. Only two years ago, Hughes had burst on to the scene with two hundreds in his second Test match. Last Monday he did not make the extended squad for the opening match of the Ashes.
England soon rattled through the top order. Khawaja's easy composure was disturbed when he nicked Shahzad to wicketkeeper Matt Prior. It was all that the bowler deserved.
Similarly, Bresnan produced a peach which held its own, then moved away late, and just enough to do for Ferguson. Ashes dreams might have been spoiled in the cases of both batsmen. Smith's treatment of the short ball was uncomplicated, shades of his battling innings for Australia in their second Test against Pakistan in Leeds last summer, when he made 77.
That, and an increasingly adept innings by his fellow spinner, Stephen O'Keefe, helped Australia's first-team aspirants to 230 all out. Before the close England lost Strauss but all the troubles belonged to Australia.
61 for 8: How Australia's batsmen struggled up and down the country
The eight Australian batsmen in their Ashes squad playing in Wednesday's various matches fell for a total of just 61 runs.
The Test players
Mike Hussey (0)
Playing for Western Australia against Victoria in Melbourne, the Australia middle-order batsmen, Hussey, was caught by brother David off the medium pace of Andrew McDonald for an 18-ball duck.
Marcus North (17)
Australia's No 6 was also caught by David Hussey, but off the pace bowling of Darren Pattinson. Has a recent knock of 101 against South Australia to call upon.
Simon Katich (1)
Australia's left-handed opening batsman was caught off Tasmanian all-rounder Luke Butterworth after 23 balls. The 35-year-old from New South Wales injured a shoulder whilst fielding in Sydney to compound a miserable day. He has only just returned to action after a thumb injury.
Shane Watson (6)
The other Australia opener nicked to the wicketkeeper Brady Jones, also off the bowling of Butterworth in the same game after facing just 16 balls. His highest score has been 40 in his last five innings for club and country.
Ricky Ponting (7)
Batting for Tasmania against New South Wales, Australia's captain was caught behind by Brad Haddin off the bowling of pace bowler Trent Copeland after 27 balls. Ponting has struggled recently, knocks of 10, 32, 5 and 7 are his last four scores.
Brad Haddin (10)
In the same game, the Australian wicketkeeper Haddin perished to a slip catch off the all-rounder James Faulkner after facing just 35 balls.
And the hopefuls
Usman Khawaja (13)
Batting for Australia A, the No 3 was caught behind by Matt Prior off Ajmal Shahzad. His last three knocks are 23, 42 and 13. Shahzad worked him over before dismissing him.
Callum Ferguson (7)
In the same game, Ferguson was caught by Prior off Tim Bresnan after eight balls. He did, however, hit 35 and 11 against England recently when playing for South Australia.
Alex Penny and Mark Tilley
Tour match, Bellerive Oval, first day of four; England won toss
Australia A: First Innings
P J Hughes c Strauss b Tremlett 2
E J M Cowan c Panesar b Bresnan 31
U T Khawaja c Prior b Shahzad 13
C J Ferguson c Prior b Bresnan 7
*C L White b Tremlett 5
†T D Paine c Prior b Tremlett 27
S P D Smith b Shahzad 59
S N J O'Keefe c Prior b Tremlett 66
C J McKay c Cook b Shahzad 0
M A Cameron c Prior b Collingwood 9
P R George not out 0
Extras (b3 lb1 nb7) 11
Total (80.1 overs) 230
Fall 1-4 2-41 3-48 4-58 5-66 6-118 7-177 8-179 9-224
Bowling Tremlett 17.1-3-54-4; Shahzad 21-6-57-3; Bresnan 19-3-65-2; Collingwood 3-1-2-1 Panesar 20-3-48-0
England: First Innings
*A J Strauss c O'Keefe b Cameron 10
A N Cook not out 10
M S Panesar not out 2
Total 1 wkt (7 overs) 22
To bat I J L Trott, K P Pietersen, P D Collingwood, I R Bell, †M J Prior, T T Bresnan, A Shahzad, C T Tremlett.
Bowling Cameron 4-1-14-1; George 2-0-7-0; McKay 1-0-1-0.
Umpires S D Fry and P R Reiffel.
Countdown to the Ashes
7 The number of sixes hit by England batsman Kevin Pietersen during his match-saving innings of 158 against the Australians at The Oval in 2005. Leading the series 2-1, England's talisman remained at the crease for over four and a half hours to guide England home to the draw that sealed the Ashes.