Watson tipped to move down the order
Shane Watson's gradual slide down the order is set to continue with Ricky Ponting's replacement expected to take over the No.3 position. Australia's coach Mickey Arthur said that while the full selection panel had not yet discussed who would take Ponting's place for the Hobart Test against Sri Lanka starting in ten days, he and the captain Michael Clarke had a potential replacement in mind who would be best suited to first drop.
That would mean Clarke could stay at No.5 and Michael Hussey at No.6, but Watson would need to drift down to No.4 to accommodate the new man. Watson is Australia's vice-captain and a key man in their plans to regain the Ashes next year, but his role in the side is evolving and having spent two and a half years as an opener, he moved to No.3 after his season-ending injury last summer allowed Ed Cowan and David Warner to become the Test openers.
"We haven't even discussed it yet [as a full selection panel], so I'm obviously putting a personal opinion. Without wanting to name names, it will probably be a guy who will come in and bat three and possibly a move for Watto at four," Arthur said of Ponting's replacement. "It just looks right and gives us a bit of stability.
"Michael and I, once we see who that guy is - and we've got in our minds who we think the guy is, but we still need to discuss that as a selection panel - and then sit down in Hobart next Monday when we arrive there and we'll make a decision on what our preferred batting order is going to be."
Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja are the leading candidates for a recall to the Test side, although it is not out of the question that Rob Quiney could be given another opportunity after failing in the first two Tests against South Africa. Whoever is included, they will need to provide Australia with a stability that the recent No.3s have not. The only century scored at first drop by an Australian since Ponting moved down the order was Shaun Marsh's debut ton in Sri Lanka last year.
Since the end of the 2009-10 summer, Australia have used five men at No.3 - Ponting, Watson, Marsh, Khawaja and Quiney - for a combined average of 26.38. Since Cowan and Warner came together as an opening pair on the Boxing Day last year, the Nos. 4 to 6 have provided Australia with nearly twice as many runs as the top three - a tally of 2861 from the middle order compared to 1483 from the top order.
"Cowan and Warner showed us glimpses this series," Arthur said. "I thought they were good in patches, but we need a lot more consistency, especially from our top four because we know at five and six we've got the best batsman in the world going into this Test match [Clarke] and Mr Cricket in Huss. We know that we're really well covered at five and six. We just need one, two, three and four to be giving us a really good platform and that's something we'll have a look at.
"When you're looking at Cowan, you're looking at Warner, you're looking at whoever comes in again and then Watto, there's no massive amount of Test caps there when you take Watto aside. You've got to give those guys time to grow and be a little bit more consistent. They've shown us they've got the goods, we've just got to be patient with them."
Australia must swiftly move on to their next challenge, a three-Test series against Sri Lanka, and then they face a tour of India ahead of back-to-back Ashes campaigns. Despite the top-order struggles and injuries to key fast bowlers, Arthur is happy with Australia's progress as they approach what will be one of the most important years of Test cricket in the side's recent history.
"If I look over the past year and I go back to the Test match we had in Hobart where we lost to New Zealand, that was a time for real reflection and a time for change and I think as a Test unit we can take a lot of pride from what we've done over the last year and I certainly think we were in a far better place now than we were this time last year," Arthur said. "We've just got to keep building. We've got a big series now against Sri Lanka and we've got to keep building through that.
"We've got a real tough series in India and that is followed by obviously what is the ultimate and that's the Ashes. We've got to make sure we've got a settled unit, very clear on what their roles are come those big Tests that lie ahead of us. But I'm still really happy we're going in the right direction."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here