Australia v South Africa, 1st Test, Brisbane, 3rd day November 11, 2012

Top-order concerns remain for Australia

Australia have grown familiar to being three down for not many in Tests of late

Over the past two years, David Warner, Ed Cowan, Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja, Ricky Ponting, Simon Katich and Rob Quiney have between them scored four Test hundreds while batting in the top three. So has Pakistan's Azhar Ali. Hashim Amla and Kumar Sangakkara have seven each, Rahul Dravid six. Leaving aside Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, only New Zealand have produced fewer runs from the top three positions in that period than Australia have.

Three for not many has been a recurring theme for the Australians for some time now. On this occasion at the Gabba, they were 3 for 40. As has often been the case after such wobbles, the captain Michael Clarke came in and steadied proceedings, this time with the help of one of the openers, Cowan, but the lack of output from the men at the top of the order must be a worry to Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur.

Sometimes, it hasn't mattered. At their best, Ponting, Clarke and Michael Hussey form as effective a counterattacking middle-order as any side could want. Australia have done well enough during a time of top-order transition to be playing for the No.1 Test ranking during this series against South Africa. But no team can expect sustained success if the top three batsmen continue to stumble.

It was encouraging, then, that Cowan reached stumps on the third day unbeaten on 49, albeit with a little bit of luck after he appeared to glove a catch behind off a Morne Morkel no-ball. But his opening partner Warner was undone by an edge to slip off a Dale Steyn delivery that he could easily have left alone. It is true that Warner is the type of batsman who goes after the ball, but this wasn't that type of shot - it was a tentative poke that spoke of an uncertainty of mind.

The shot aptly described where Warner's cricket has been in the past month - neither here nor there. A number of players from both Australia and South Africa have had less-than-ideal Test preparation due to their Champions League Twenty20 commitments, but Warner is an unusual case in that he spent most of the tournament sitting in the rooms fine-tuning his iPod playlist. He had only one innings for the Delhi Daredevils, barely felt ball on bat, and then came home for one Sheffield Shield match before the first Test.

The Steyn ball that got him at the Gabba was pretty good, not great, but it didn't need to be. Warner's contractual obligations might have meant Cricket Australia had no option but to let him stay at the Champions League, but that doesn't change the fact that he was ill-prepared for this series. Warner can't afford to rest on the laurels of last summer's outstandingly patient hundred against New Zealand in Hobart and his brutal 180 against India in Perth.

Quiney, on the other hand, couldn't have been described as tentative in his first Test innings. He was welcomed to Test cricket with a bouncer from Steyn that he confidently pulled for what was almost a boundary to deep square leg, and it was a similar shot that brought his demise. He will have a chance in the second innings to prove that he can be a valuable Test player, but on this occasion he added to the thin recent record of Australia's top three.

And then there was Ponting. Batting at No.4 these days, Ponting enjoyed a hugely productive summer against India a year ago and has been in majestic Sheffield Shield form, but like Warner played at a ball well wide of off stump that could have been left alone. Having seen some tricky domestic surfaces this season, perhaps Ponting was put at ease by the apparently true Gabba pitch, but whatever the case his edge to slip off Morkel left Australia three down with few on the board.

If Cowan manages to bring up his maiden Test hundred on Monday it will be a step in the right direction for Australia's top order. That they have used nine men in those positions in the past two years says a lot. Excluding nightwatchmen, South Africa have used five. And in Test cricket, few things are as valuable as a strong, stable top order.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Rajaram on November 11, 2012, 23:29 GMT

    We need GRAFTERS like 'Alfie' Justin Langer or Simon Katich, not players like Phil Hughes otr David Warner, who do not have an Opener's technique.They have airy -fairy shots. Ed Cowan is the RIGHT MAN for the job. His opening partner should be Rob Quiney or Usman Khawaja. Whoever of the two is chosen,the other should be at Number 4,when Ponting retires. RPunter should be back at Number 3 - his BEST postion.Watson at 4,Clarke at 5,Mike Hussey at 6,Wade at 7.

  • Rohan on November 11, 2012, 23:28 GMT

    @venkat_75r, what does Cosgrove bring to the table? He's averaging less than 40 this season, is not a true opener, is definitely overweight but not in the David Boon sense, more like Arjuna ("get me a runner, i just ate!")Ranatunga, is not a good fielder and has seriously questionable commitment. He's not even a young guy anymore. I've never been convinced by Warner, he's a lot like Hughes really. Succeeding once every ten innings or so as an opener is just not good enough. But im sick of hearing that Cosgrove is the answer, he's not. No, Australia's batting cupboard has never been so bare.

  • Mariam on November 11, 2012, 23:28 GMT

    Agree with Edwards_A, Khawaja is the long term answer to the number 3 spot for Australia. The guy outscored Tasmania on the weekend on an absolute bowling deck where the match finished in less then 2 days. This to add to his man of the match performance against a star NSW attack. We need to get him in earlier rather then later.

  • Rajaram on November 11, 2012, 23:13 GMT

    When will Cricket Australia learn? That IPL and T20 are not good preparation for Test Matches. We lost to India when we toured them because Mike Hussey and Doug Bollinger were BUSY playing in The Champions League and did not have enough Test Match preparation. The ONLY way to make cricketers understand is to announce that ONLY those Cricketers who have played 3 Sheffied Shield matches in that season will be considered for Test Cricket. David Warner is undependable. I would have Usman Khawaja to open the innings in the Third Test - knock off David Warner,bring in Shane Watson.

  • Sanjay on November 11, 2012, 21:31 GMT

    @VENKAT_75R: Don't worry, eventually he'll get a go too. Just look at the number of players the Oz are going thru, it's like a conveyor belt at a factory.By the time, they show up for the Ashes in England (summer of 2013), they'll have an entirely different team.

  • Peter on November 11, 2012, 21:30 GMT

    @grug76. I hear what you are saying but everyone is different. Personally I have played cricket for a fair while (going to 2nd grade in Sydney), mostly opening, & always found going down the order difficult to adjust. Keith Stackpole's memoirs also stated the same, & even Allan Border wrote how he found it very difficult to make the change going up. Greg Chappell mentioned in his memoirs how uncomfortable he felt mentally going in #3 proving that everyone, indeed, is different. No doubt Clarke feels most comfortable @ 5, 4 at a push, but to ask him to do #3 would be a backward step (IMHO).

  • Greg on November 11, 2012, 20:32 GMT

    i was never anything more than a decent bush cricketer who batted at no 4 most of the time... if one of our top 3 was unavailable i would always move to no 3 and the new player would bat at 6 or 7... if two of our top 3 were out i would open the batting... with australia having such problems at the top of the top of the order, why on earth isn't clarke moving up to 3 and a new batsman batting at 5 or 6????? seem to remember guys like ponting, watson, mark waugh, david boon, greg blewett, allan border all starting their careers at 5 or 6 before moving up the order as opportunities arose

  • Peter on November 11, 2012, 19:55 GMT

    Warner's preparation was disappointing, but the fact is, he is very inexperienced in first class to be able to make the adjustments as quickly as others who have done the hard yards. On his day a devastating player who is worth his place, but the increasing emphasis on T20 on young emerging players will see all countries have these issues, if they already haven't yet. At the moment, the number of under 25 players easily adopting from T20 to serious fc is far below the number who are not. This is not a problem confined to the likes of Warner but cricket in general & my concern is a long term drop of test standard.

  • R on November 11, 2012, 18:26 GMT

    Why nobody is speaking about Casgrove? He might be overweight but is a class batsman. They should bring in him for over hyped Warner

  • ILANKO on November 11, 2012, 17:38 GMT

    Warner is no test cricketer! What a joke..Aussies can't produce quality batsmen any more.

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