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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mariam on December 5, 2012, 11:26 GMT

    @Antir not sure if you watched any of the Ryobi cup games this year but Khawaja's fielding and agrression looks a million bucks.Under Lehman's coaching Khawaja looks much more aggressive and playing with intend. Selectors asked that he get more aggression in his game and improve his fielding and he has done both with bulk. I would have gone for Hughes for the opening slot but given we are talking about 3 there are few better young batsman then Khawaja at this position. I would also keep Cowan and Warner at the top, give them time to gel as a opening pair.

    position as he has been successful in this position in all formats for NSW and Qld.

  • Chris on December 5, 2012, 3:43 GMT

    popcorn - Warner is not dependable? What about Cowan? Cowan has now played 17 innings and averages less than 35 with just 1 century on a flat deck. Cowan has to date been dependably poor and has rarely stood up when we needed him to. He's been the one letting the pair down. In 21 innings, Warner has already scored 3 centuries and averages almost 42 which is actually not that bad for an opener. Warner is also 4 years younger and also offers some handy leg-spin and excellent fielding as well. Along with Clarke and Hussey, Warner should be the only certain pick for the short term. Watson is simply not a good enough batsman to bat in the top 5. I doubt he's even good enough to bat at 6. In 66 innings, 2 'small' centuries @36 is simply not good enough to play for Australia. We demand better. I think Meety has a good point about picking different sides for India and England since the conditions are so different, it's almost a completely different game.

  • Luke on December 5, 2012, 2:40 GMT

    Why? His name is Warner. I love the guy, but he's not Test standard and I can't imagine he ever will be. He can't play the moving ball, time to go.

  • Anthony on December 5, 2012, 2:31 GMT

    Cricket is a game of patience and balance. Warner is still learning this a test level but he is learning. This is different from Hughes who has to fix technical issues which are affecting his balance as a batsman. He needed time to fix it in his own way and he says he has done that. Khawaja is the same except he also has a deficiency in his overall game, that is his fielding and that takes a lot longer to fix.

    This whole discussion is polarised because there is no obvious answer. We have to support the decisions that have been made and be patient. This situation is not ideal. Our top four test batsman are not convincing at the moment and I include Watson in that category. Losing Ricky is losing a fantastic fielder.

    I have always thought that Phil Hughes should at number 3 as he has that stubborn determination attitude required for the position. Can he do it at test level? It is the same answer for the other 3 top order batsman, I am not sure! Is there a better answer is, no.

  • Lewis on December 5, 2012, 2:23 GMT

    Long term I think Hughes will take Warner or Cowan's spot as the opening batsman and Khawaja will be the number 3.

  • Simon on December 5, 2012, 2:15 GMT

    Trouble with comparisons, is the lack of qualification. The other opening combinations you compare with consist of players who had extensive 1st class and (some) test careers before they combined. The comparison is about as relevant as comparing Lawry and Warner for LBWs. No player today gets the same benefit of doubt as past eras, so stat comparisons are irrelevant. Appears players like Warner aren't allowed to learn on the job, because players lower in the order are out of form. What a strange assessment of a players worth.

  • Adrian on December 5, 2012, 1:11 GMT

    Funny how the Warner-Watson partnership was good, yet the Warner-Cowan partnership is bad and somehow or other Warner gets the blame! Surely it is Ed Cowan, with the poor FC record and even worse test record, who should get the boot. Warner is pure class all the way, while Cowan doesn't belong.

  • Lester on December 5, 2012, 0:09 GMT

    Personally, i like this opening combination, but i can see where they are coming from. i actually am more unsure about cowan than warner in this combination, because for someone who 'takes the shine off the ball' ect, and hangs around, he still hasn't produced that much, i mean one ton on a batting wicket, where as, warner has one on a green mamba (hobart v NZ) and one on another green wicket (WACA v india) and one last series, but i still am a big fan of cowan, (and he is looking more consistent now) but i think they need more time. i wondered about cowan at 3 with hughes opening with warner..??...but i dunno. The key thing about warner and his problems is covered above...shot selection. The guys got an incredible eye, and thats why i think he will be great in time. once he gets more experience he will leave the balls that he doesn't need to and that he has been playing and nicking recently...

  • John on December 4, 2012, 23:43 GMT

    Totally agree with the article, nice piece. The innings Warner played vs NZ (yes they aren't the best team but it was the way he played in the tough conditions) showed me that he can do it IF he has the right attitude. I would be more than happy persisting with him IF someone can get him to play like that again. Otherwise I'd be tempted to go back to Hughes even if could be career ending for him. Aus can't afford a Sehwag 'gamble' type opener with the batting so uncertain, they need consistency. As much as I think this opening pair has potential to be great I suspect at least one will need to be dropped so Hughes will get another go anyway.

  • Allan on December 4, 2012, 21:52 GMT

    I think both Cowan and Warner will do well but Hughes has to be opening eventually for Australia. For the number 3 spot it has to be Khawaja. I have seen a few of Khawaja's games this year and he is the man to replace ponting. Did not look out of place in his appearances at test level, just didn't have enough time to establish himself. His technique is among the best, he just needs the confidence of the selectors and the captain. He is a solid number three, just like amla. Khawaja has made plenty when the going is tough.

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