South Africa in Australia 2012-13 December 4, 2012

Australia need to fix trouble at the top

David Warner and Ed Cowan both made hundreds against South Africa but they have a way to go to make themselves a long-term opening pair

Here's a sobering statistic: in Australia's 135-year Test history, only one long-term opening pair has had a worse start than Ed Cowan and David Warner. Sounds unbelievable? They've both made Test hundreds, they've both contributed to victories, but in 17 innings together they have managed only four half-century stands. The only pair with a worse record who survived much beyond 17 innings worked on mud-heaps and matting in the 1950s. But more of that later.

The immediate question is, Why does Australia's opening combination rarely get much further than the first hour? And with an Indian tour and back-to-back Ashes coming up next year, how long can they be given to improve? It might seem a churlish argument given they both scored centuries against South Africa. For now, Australia's selectors are committed to Cowan and Warner, and want to allow them time to settle into a cohesive coupling. But nearly a year into this arranged top-order marriage, Warner's wandering eye is a worry.

It is easy to forget that Warner is still learning the game, not just Test cricket but first-class cricket as well. Cowan has honed his approach over nine seasons of Sheffield Shield cricket, most as an opener. Warner was given a baggy green after 11 first-class games. Half of his 24 first-class matches have been Tests. He has played roughly the same amount of first-class cricket as Joe Burns and Mitchell Marsh, and about a quarter as much as Phillip Hughes.

It is no surprise that Cowan generally survives longer. Twelve times the partnership has been ended by Warner's wicket falling, only five times by Cowan's departure. Ten times Cowan has batted for at least an hour and a half in a Test innings, double the amount of times Warner has managed it. At his best, Warner can utterly destroy an opposition, as he did against India at the WACA last summer. But at his worst, his poor shot selection can hand control back to the bowling team.

In the first innings of Australia's loss to South Africa in Perth, Warner's dismissal was unquestionably a turning point. Australia began the second day in some trouble at 2 for 33. It was a time to consolidate, to build a platform for the middle order to work from. Seven balls into the morning, Warner flashed loosely outside off with his bat at 45 degrees - a cardinal sin at the WACA - and was given out caught behind off Dale Steyn. It brought a tense Ricky Ponting to the crease earlier than he hoped in his final Test.

There will be those who argue that Warner plays that way, you take the good with the bad. But in Hobart last year, he showed that he can build a different style of innings. His unbeaten 123 against New Zealand was a perfectly-paced innings. As wickets fell around him, Warner showed good judgment, left plenty of deliveries alone and only started to lift his tempo when he was joined by the tail. Australia fell eight runs short of their target, but that they got so close was down to Warner.

It's an approach he has rarely shown since. It's as if Warner wanted to prove he could bat carefully, and once he had, he felt free to go back to his natural game. But Test cricket isn't like that. There are times when a Test opener can cut loose, but over and over and over he must show that he can handle the swinging ball, leave deliveries that tempt him, and give the middle order something to work with. Perhaps Warner has forgotten that, and a lead-up to the South African series spent travelling with the Champions League Twenty20 circus didn't help.

More often than not, the middle order is left mopping up a mess. In their first 17 innings together, Cowan and Warner have managed four half-century stands (and only one partnership that has reached triple figures). The very best pairs have invariably begun well. Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer had nine half-century stands in their first 17 innings together. Michael Slater and Mark Taylor had eight, Taylor and Geoff Marsh eight, Marsh and David Boon six, Bill Lawry and Bob Simpson six.

Only three opening combinations have had fewer half-century stands in their first 17 innings than Cowan and Warner. Simon Katich and Matthew Hayden had three; Hayden's decline and retirement ended that. Graeme Wood and Andrew Hilditch had one; after 18 innings together they were separated.

The one combination that lasted a little longer was Colin McDonald and Jim Burke, who had one fifty stand in their first 17. They were given another 15 innings. McDonald and Burke had a tough gig on uncovered pitches in the 1950s. In Manchester in 1956 they opened in the Test in which Jim Laker took 19 wickets, on a surface McDonald described as resembling Bondi Beach in the first innings and a mud-heap in the second. They also had to bat on matting in Pakistan, a surface that made Fazal Mahmood unplayable.

Warner and Cowan have faced some good attacks, but they can't blame conditions for their record together. Over the next three Tests against Sri Lanka, they have a chance to show that they can be Australia's long-term opening pair. Cowan needs to prove that his Gabba hundred was not a one-off, but at least he is consistently occupying time. Warner must demonstrate again and again that he can judge a situation.

Notably, Hughes is piling on Shield runs, and pressure. There is every chance he will join the Test side at No. 3 against Sri Lanka in Hobart, the first of seven Tests before the Ashes. But if he finds himself coming in regularly at 1 for 20, 1 for 30, 1 for 40, he might be a Test opener again by the time Australia visit England.

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