Australia v South Africa, 3rd Test, Perth, 3rd day December 2, 2012

The post-Ponting puzzle

To fill the hole of Ricky Ponting, who retires after this Test, the structure of Australia's batting order may be reconsidered

The next two days might not deliver a victory for Australia, but they should provide some clarity on the team's batting setup. Whatever happens in this match, Australia's batting order will change for their next Test against Sri Lanka in Hobart. It might be as simple as a straight swap with a middle-order batsman replacing the retiring Ricky Ponting at No. 4. Alternatively, the whole structure of the batting order might be altered in the post-Ponting era.

If the selectors decide Phillip Hughes is the man most deserving of a call-up, does he have to open? Would they install him at No. 3 and move Shane Watson down? Will this be the time that Michael Clarke decides to challenge himself at first drop? The events over the next two days, on a good WACA pitch with plenty of runs in it, will not provide these answers alone, but they will be contributing factors when John Inverarity and his selection panel discuss their options afterwards.

The opening partnership is one of the most interesting puzzles. Over the past two Tests, both Ed Cowan and David Warner have scored impressive hundreds. But rarely have they clicked together. When they walked out onto the WACA to begin this enormous chase of 632, it was their 17th Test opening partnership. Only once - in Perth last summer - have they posted a century stand. Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, the gold standard by which all new Australian opening combinations will be judged, managed six century stands in their first 17 innings.

Cowan and Warner began solidly on this occasion. They went to stumps at 0 for 40 and have the opportunity to make their case for permanent residency at the top of the order on Monday. At their best, they are an odd couple whose differences - Warner is aggressive while Cowan is watchful - can be complementary, but at their worst they contribute too often to Australia's shaky starts. Since they have been opening, Australia have been three down for less than a hundred more often than not.

Part of that also comes down to the No. 3 position. The challenges of the post-Ponting era can be glimpsed by the way the Australians have struggled to find a first-drop since Ponting moved to No. 4. In that time, the only century an Australian No. 3 has scored is by Shaun Marsh, on debut in Sri Lanka - the innings that encouraged the Australians to shunt Ponting down in the first place. Marsh faltered, Usman Khawaja didn't grasp his opportunities, Rob Quiney failed and Watson has teased without delivering.

In his seven innings at first drop, Watson has made 39, 52, 56, 0, 41, 5 and 10. At his best he can destroy a new-ball attack, but he is vulnerable to lbws and to the lack of rest that his top-order position allows him after he has bowled. He has a chance in this innings to score the kind of century that Australia need from their No. 3. Otherwise, he might find himself slipping further down the order to accommodate Ponting's replacement.

Of course, there is the possibility of Clarke, the highest-ranked Test batsman in the world, moving himself up to first drop. But does it make sense to alter the part of Australia's batting line-up that is working best, the middle order, to patch a hole at the top? Would he have the same impact against the new ball as he has coming in at three down? Even if those three wickets have fallen cheaply, the shine has generally been taken off by the time he has come in.

If the line-up fizzles again on Monday, Clarke might find himself forced to consider the possibility more seriously for the upcoming Sri Lanka series. Michael Hussey, in form for the time being, appears unlikely to move from No. 6. And Ponting is departing regardless of what happens in Perth.

Much will depend on who the selectors choose to replace him - Hughes, Khawaja, Quiney, Alex Doolan or a bolter - and where that person is used to batting. But Australia's batting over the next two days will also be a factor. Australia's chances of victory are as slim as Bruce Reid, but the batsmen still have plenty to play for.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on December 4, 2012, 7:14 GMT

    I'd like to see Khawaja at 3. I think he's come a long way since last playing, and he could be a definite position filler for long periods of time given his age.

  • kieran on December 3, 2012, 23:55 GMT

    @ Robert Falconer, you call for the end of Clarke's NSW Mates Club and then you suggest Bird & Henriques?! They're both from NSW mate. So is Hastings. In Brisbane & Adelaide there were 3 NSWelshmen in the side. For the life of me I don't understand why people have an issue with the most populace state in the country producing the most test players.

  • Guy on December 3, 2012, 15:23 GMT

    I'm with CricHorizon, popcorn and others - it's not that much of a puzzle. Khawaja shades Hughes and goes to 3, with Watson to 4. However, from the comments here it seems we have many choices. So many in fact, I'm going to work my way up from the bottom because I can't keep track. Double asterisks mark those occasionally or rarely playing for their state at the moment. Asterisks mark those who don't bat in the top four for their state. S.Marsh**, Haddin*, promote Clarke, Ben Rohrer, Bailey, D.Hussey, Burns, Nevill, Kurtis Patterson**, Jaques** (pity he's retired), Rogers, Ferguson, Tom Beaton**, Maxwell*, M.Marsh*, Lynn**, S.Smith, Cosgrove, promote M.Hussey, Voges, C.White, William Bosito**, Doolan. Seriously guys, my dartboard could do a better job.

  • Troy on December 3, 2012, 11:14 GMT

    Khawaja at 3, Watson at 4. I'd like Clarke at 3, but he didn't do too well at 4, and doesn't seem to want to move up. Don't mess with the openers, they are doing ok, although I like the idea of Watson and Cowan, Watson worked well with katich, and Cowan is of a similar mold. If khawaja is judged as needing more time in shield, then bring in bailey, or David Hussey as a stopgap. David Hussey deserves a few tests for his form over the past decade, he's just been unlucky for there not being any real spot for him.

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2012, 10:33 GMT

    Stop the old guard & Clarkies NSW Mates club, pick Alex Doolan & Jackson Bird for crying out loud - what doe's he have to do to get picked been easily the most consistent bowler in shield getting heaps of wickets & conceding few runs. John Hastings is a workhorse but not up to test grade, how can they pick him over Jackson Bird or Moises Henriques.

  • Peter on December 3, 2012, 10:29 GMT

    Maybe U-19 captain and MoS in U-19 WC... William Bosisto ?

  • Dummy4 on December 3, 2012, 10:27 GMT

    i think that is the best time for David Hussey to get a go i also think that brad haddin need to be put back into the side and for wade to sent packing

  • Mariam on December 3, 2012, 10:26 GMT

    Given we are talking about the number 4 spot or 3, then Khawaja is the best choice for that position and best young batsman in the country. For me the biggest improvement in Khawaja's game has been his fielding and running between the wickets. In the Ryobi games I have seen intend and urgency in his game which was missing last year. Hopefully he continues to improve and work on these aspects which the selectors gave him as we need this young man in the team as he will add stability to our top order. It was good to see all the commentators put Khawaja in their team.

  • Satish on December 3, 2012, 10:20 GMT

    My 11 for Australia would be, Watson/Warner, Hughes, Cowan, Clarke, M Hussey, Bailey, Haddin, Siddle, Starc, Pattinson, Lyon. Without any confidence or potential, they wouldn't have made bailey the captain of shorter format. If he is that confident guy, why not insert him into test arena? He looked to be a guy made for longer formats. Hughes is a guy who will score more 100s than Cowan and let him play ahead of Cowan. Cowan can add stability at 3. They can even try Bailey at 4 if Clarke still sticks to his no.5 slot.

  • Brenton on December 3, 2012, 10:19 GMT

    Young batsmen have always earnt their test stripes batting at 6. Even Ponting and Bradman began there. In the short term move Clarke to 4, Hussey 5 and a young player at 6. For the long term Hughes needs to be up the top with Clarke staying at 4 the rest of his career.

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