Quiney part of buffer zone for middle order
Michael Clarke has defended his decision to thrust the Test debutant Rob Quiney into No.3 against South Africa's powerful pace attack, while Australia's three most experienced batsmen will remain down the order. South Africa's captain Graeme Smith is keen for his fast bowlers to exploit the lack of experience in Australia's top order, with none of Ed Cowan, David Warner and Quiney having previously faced the South Africans in Test cricket.
Clarke said he had considered batting at first drop himself but was reluctant to alter the middle order that had such success against India last summer, when Ricky Ponting, Clarke and Michael Hussey batted at Nos. 4, 5 and 6. Quiney will be Australia's fourth Test No.3 since Ponting moved down the order during last year's tour of Sri Lanka, following Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja and Shane Watson.
Combined with the fact that Warner and Cowan, both of whom are still making their way in Test cricket, will open the innings, it leaves Australia potentially vulnerable against Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander and Morne Morkel, the best pace line-up in the world today. Clarke said although he could have promoted himself up the order to first drop, he believed Quiney was better suited to the role, given that he usually opens for Victoria.
"I have actually [thought about batting at No.3], I've spoken to Justin Langer and I had some time talking to Ricky about it over the last few days as well," Clarke said. "We think at the moment Rob is best suited to No.3 for this Test match. Hopefully he performs really well and grabs hold of his opportunity. I've said for a while now it doesn't bother me where I bat. Ricky and Michael Hussey are in the exact same boat. They don't really care where they bat, it's about what's best suited for the team.
"We thought our middle order played really well together last year, all last summer. We're looking to do the same thing. We think Rob's got plenty of experience in first-class cricket opening the batting and batting at No.3. He's probably used to that position a lot more than me for the start of this series. We can assess as Test matches go on, as time goes on. I really hope Rob grabs his opportunity with both hands and owns that No.3 position for Australia."
The lack of a stable first drop is one of the vexing issues facing Clarke and the coach Mickey Arthur, after Marsh and Khawaja both showed encouraging signs in the position only to slip out of form and out of the team. And Watson, who would have batted at No.3 in this match had he been fit, is not necessarily an automatic inclusion in the side except as an allrounder.
In Australia's past 25 Test matches, only one century has been scored at No.3 - Marsh's debut hundred in Sri Lanka - and collectively Australia's batsmen have averaged 28.38 at first drop in that time. Meanwhile, in the same period, Clarke has piled up 1981 runs at 46.06 while coming in down the order at No.5. Smith said he hoped Australia's lack of top-order experience and form would play into South Africa's hands.
"The goal is to have our bowlers expose the top order as much as possible," Smith said. "Everyone wants to have a team three-down as quickly as possible and really give yourself the best opportunity to bowl people out. That inexperience ... is hopefully something that we can exploit. That would be nice, because then we will have Australia under pressure.
"We've done our preparation, we've had a look at them. A few of us know Bob [Quiney] through the IPL and got a look at him the other day, even though the wicket will be very different here. We've done some planning and hopefully our bowlers have proven they've got the skill to execute, hopefully that will happen again in the next five days."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here