Hobart: Michael Clarke's lineup has just taken one dramatic step in reverse after a couple of shuffles forward since it was branded the worst Australian test lineup in decades.
In the latest setback, New Zealand ended its long drought by winning a test on Australian soil for the first time since 1985 with a tense seven-run victory Monday at Hobart's Bellerive Oval.
The manner of a collapse from 159-2 to 233 all out chasing 241 for a 2-0 series sweep had echoes of that innings at Cape Town last month when the Australians were bundled out for 47 in a heavy loss to South Africa that drew plenty of harsh criticism.
The two test wins in the interim at Johannesburg and again last week in Brisbane, it seems, were aberrations.
With a four-test series against India starting Dec. 26, Clarke and his fellow selectors need to make some tough decisions following a loss to the No. 8-ranked team in test cricket.
"You've seen some really good patches of individual excellence, and as a team we've been playing really well in patches," Clarke told a post-match news conference. "But then you're seeing the other side as well, where we're letting ourselves down by very poor performances.
"We can't seem to find that middle road. We're inconsistent at the moment, which is a real pain."
The headlines online were full of adjectives such as "disaster" and "embarrassment" even before Clarke left the field. Analyst and former test captain Ian Chappell told the website cricinfo the result "was a bit of a low point" for Australian cricket.
Only Clarke, who scored three centuries in his six innings coming into this test, and opener David Warner, who carried his bat in an unbeaten 123 on Monday, can be confident of retaining their places among the batsmen.
With Shane Watson and Shaun Marsh due back from injuries, there's destined to be changes. Phillip Hughes is almost certain to lose his opening slot, Usman Khawaja still hasn't posted the big score that his talent promises at No. 3 and 36-year-old Mike Hussey is under threat in the middle order.
Ex-captain Ricky Ponting, who scored back-to-back half centuries in Johannesburg and Brisbane, had two failures at Bellerive and will be 37 when the Indian series starts.
Speculation about his retirement will certainly intensify. It was his dismissal which triggered the collapse on Monday, when 21-year-old Doug Bracewell removed Ponting, Clarke and Hussey — all survivors of the era when Australia dominated international cricket — within eight deliveries.
Rain and the very green wicket at Bellerive made for lively conditions, encouraging swing and seam movement, and Warner was the only batsmen to score triple figures.
"I'm not going to complain about the pitch," Clarke said. "Both teams had to play on it, and we got outplayed in this test match."
The 30-year-old Clarke said there were no excuses for the top or middle-order batsmen.
"It's just not good enough. As batters, it's our job to get runs — we're not doing that."
After a being a vocal advocate for Hughes in recent weeks, Clarke hinted the 23-year-old lefthander might need some time in domestic cricket to iron out the technical deficiencies which have been exposed by New Zealand paceman Chris Martin. He scored 41 runs in the series and was out edging Martin in all four innings.
"He's obviously really disappointed — like all the batters are with the way we played today," Clarke said. "Hughesy's probably most disappointed, (because) he's been getting out the same way.
"I know he's been working hard ... but he needs to find some runs, it's as simple as that. If he's not making them for Australia, he's going to have to go back and score some for New South Wales."
As part of the overhaul of Australian cricket in the wake of the Ashes series loss at home to England last southern summer, the test captain and coach are part of a five-man selection panel. That means Clarke and new coach Mickey Arthur will be involved in plenty of discussions in coming days to help work out the best XI for the Boxing Day test in Melbourne.
Clarke said sentiment won't play any role in the selections.
"Since I've taken over the captaincy, I've made it very clear that my one vote on selection will not be personal, it'll be whatever I think is best for the team," said Clarke, who has three wins, two losses and two draws since replacing Ponting as test captain. "Hughes "needs some runs, no doubt. He's not the only though — let me make that very clear."
On the positive side, the young bowlers unearthed in the last three tests have performed admirably, particularly 21-year-old James Pattinson who has two five-wicket hauls and took 14 wickets at an average of 14 in his two tests.
While the Australian bowlers were overshadowed by Bracewell, who took 6-40 on Monday, paceman Pattinson and Peter Siddle, and offspinner Nathan Lyon did enough in the series to warrant selection in the next series.
With Watson and Ryan Harris expected to be returning from injury soon, at least selectors have options in the bowling department which didn't seem to exist a month ago.