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