Australian cricket August 15, 2013

First drop or first dropped?

Usman Khawaja was not the reason for Australia's defeat in Chester-le-Street, but he hasn't solved the team's No. 3 problem either

It has been 48 innings since an Australian has scored a Test century at No. 3. Never before has the team had a drought that long at first drop. Not when Harry Moses, Harry Trott and George Giffen were struggling on uncovered pitches in the 1880s. Not when Ian Redpath, Paul Sheahan and Bob Cowper were failing to convert starts in the late 1960s. Never. Every other team - Zimbabwe and Bangladesh included - have had Test hundreds from their No. 3 since Australia's last.

To watch Usman Khawaja over the past two Tests has been to witness a continuation of the first drop malaise. At times he has appeared elegant and classy in his strokes. But, there has also been a frailness, a sense that the bowlers had his measure. In Australia's botched chase in Chester-le-Street, he played a typical Khawaja Test innings: plenty of style but little substance. His limp prod and lbw to Graeme Swann was the beginning of Australia's end.

No. 3 need not be the team's best batsman, but he must be up for a battle. From Ian Chappell to David Boon, from Justin Langer to Ricky Ponting, Australia's modern-day first drops have been fighters, men who have placed a high price on their wicket, regardless of natural ability. There are times when a No. 3 can bat more freely and build on a strong platform, but just as often his main job is to ensure that one for not many doesn't become two for very few.

Big innings matter at first drop, but small ones are equally significant. Since Shaun Marsh scored 141 on debut in Sri Lanka in 2011, not only have Australia not had a century at No. 3, they have also had 11 ducks there from 48 innings. No other position in the top, middle or tail comes close to that many zeros in the same period - the next highest is six ducks from the No.8 batsmen. Since Ponting moved down the order, Australia's No. 3s have collectively averaged 25.62.

And "collectively" is the word. Marsh was injured while batting in the 2011 Cape Town Test, Ponting stood in for him in the second innings, then Khawaja was tried and discarded, Marsh returned in woeful form, Shane Watson visited No. 3 on his stopping-at-all-stations trip down the order, Rob Quiney failed and was forgotten, Watson came back, Phillip Hughes had a turn, Michael Clarke tried it once in India, Ed Cowan's tenure was brief, and now Khawaja is back.

Cricket mythology will tell you that a team's best batsman comes in at No. 3, but Len Hutton and Jack Hobbs were openers. So was Sunil Gavaskar. Allan Border floated from four to six. Sachin Tendulkar has avoided the job so fastidiously that he has played 327 Test innings and not a single one at first drop. Clarke is this team's talisman but as Stuart Broad has shown, the swinging new ball is not his friend. There is no need for Clarke to move higher than No.4.

But then, who gets the job? The production line is not the result of having too many options, but too few good ones. Australia have used No. 3 as a place to try fresh faces (Marsh, Khawaja, Quiney) or more familiar ones in search of a spot (Watson, Hughes, Cowan). It is little wonder, for that is largely how the state teams treat the first drop position. The lack of big scores at domestic level has been well documented, but the dearth of runs at No. 3 is especially alarming.

Consider the following, a list of all the batsmen used at No.3 in the Sheffield Shield last summer, nightwatchmen aside: Khawaja, Hughes, Quiney, Ponting, Marsh, Watson, Alex Doolan, Michael Klinger, Michael Hussey, David Hussey, Marcus North, Aaron Finch, Joe Burns, Peter Forrest, Cameron White, Nic Maddinson, Tom Cooper, Peter Nevill, Tim Cruickshank, Sam Whiteman, Luke Towers, Dom Michael, John Rogers, Michael Hill, Alex Carey, Steve Cazzulino, Sam Miller, Peter Handscomb, Daniel Hughes, Marcus Stonis and even the bowler Kane Richardson.

That's 31 men who batted at No. 3 last season; a mix of veterans, rookies and journeymen. And for all of that, only four centuries were made from first drop in the summer's 31 Shield matches. Not surprisingly, Khawaja (138 v Tasmania) and Hughes (120 v Victoria) made one each, while the other centurions were Doolan (149 v South Australia) and Hill (144 v Queensland).

Doolan might have sent a postcard from Victoria Falls on this year's Australia A tour, but otherwise has had nothing to write home about, and it is difficult to argue against Khawaja and Hughes as being the best Test options. Perhaps Khawaja will be given another chance at The Oval and grasp it, but the signs have not been promising. He may one day stamp himself as a Test batsman, but right now Khawaja at No. 3 looks wrong.

There is a strong argument that Hughes should get the job. Khawaja's strokeplay appears more sophisticated, but Hughes has the fight. He showed that during the first innings at Trent Bridge, when from No. 6 he scored a patient and mature 81 not out as Ashton Agar stole the limelight at the other end. But three low scores followed and Hughes was cut.

It is true that Hughes has issues against quality offspin, but Khawaja hasn't looked comfortable against Swann either. What Hughes has is the ability to score big - 21 first-class hundreds to Khawaja's 11 - and the proven capacity to make runs at Test level. He also has a reasonable record as a Test No.3 - 372 runs at 37.20 - but always seems the batsman most vulnerable to the axe, or to being shuffled around the order.

Since the start of this year's Indian tour, Hughes' Test batting positions look like this: 343343346644. Including tour matches, he has batted in every spot from opening to No. 6 on this trip. Hughes conceded on Wednesday that "at times it can be [difficult] if you keep changing your position in the order, but it's about getting your head around it, and if you do get consistent runs, you'll hold a spot. It can be tricky but it's a professional sport and it's up to the captain and the selectors to give you a position".

It is time to give Hughes the No.3 position and leave him there. He enjoys the new ball, converts and fights. Yes, sometimes he looks ugly doing it. But he is much less pretty batting further down against spin. And when it all comes down to it, he has been Australia's most effective No.3 since Ponting. He has contributed to the record century drought but he has come closer than anyone to breaking it. His last two innings at No.3 were 69 and 45 in trying conditions in India.

If given the opportunity, it is of course up to Hughes to take it. But for now, perhaps the selectors should think about Hughes as first drop, not the first dropped.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Roshan on August 21, 2013, 14:16 GMT

    @Beertjie, I don't think Warner is No. 3 material. I'm not sure his temperament and technique suits it. @Mandini, Hughes has scored 3 Test centuries from 26 Tests at an average of around 35. It's not much but it's a damn sight better than Smith, Khawaja, Watson (even accounting today's hundred) and Haddin. His stats would have been much better had he not been dropped soon after making his debut (after he scored 2 centuries and averaged 50) because of a few bad scores. That really demoralised him, but he has a fighting spirit and a tough temperament. If he gets an extended run of about 20 Tests in the top order I'm sure he will find his initial form.

  • Roshan on August 21, 2013, 14:08 GMT

    @Jono Makim - I suppose that's true. Khawaja should just probably be left to mature in Sheffield Shield for a while. When I saw his Test debut I thought, this guy could be Ponting's successor. He was classy, but quite poised and mature. Maybe if he wasn't dropped at the drop of a hat he would have developed in to a better player. Either Hughes or Rogers has got to be at 3 and the other should open, and I think Watto, based on his current innings, would be good in the lower order, maybe 5. There must be some better batsmen than Smith. He's had long enough and hasn't really proved himself. His form at first-class level hasn't been good either. Why not put Doolan or Maddinson at 6 until they develop the confidence to go higher up in the order.

  • Mashuq on August 21, 2013, 10:27 GMT

    Brydon, instead of new names for #3 the answer seems to me to be Warner. He's an attacking batsman who will dominate if he gets in and who's not too flash playing spinners. Hughes/Khawaja could open together with Rogers with Clarke at #4. Smith will do OK at the Gabba and Adelaide, but should not play at Perth and the G where the pace bowlers will work him over. By that time someone like Burns may have put up his hand and he could be trialled. That just leaves #5. Whoever puts up his hand in Shield could play - I hope this Watson/all-rounder mania is stopped. Siddle, Pattinson, Bird and Lyon seem altogether sufficient with Smiith adding occasional variety: So for the Gabba and Adelaide: Rogers, Hughes (or Khawaja if form justifies), Warner, Clarke, Ferguson (?!), Smith, Haddin, Pattinson, Siddle, Lyon, Bird.

  • Harvey on August 19, 2013, 2:43 GMT

    Good call StewEdrich, where is Nic Maddinson? bobbsy - seriously...Maxwell...the last thing the Australian test team needs are more ODI players, thats the whole problem. The selectors are convinced that good ODI form mean a good test player (example Watson, good ODI, crap tests). Apart from Clarke, not many make the change well. With Watson and Warner all too happy to throw their wickets away, the last thing they need is Maxwell. Cowan, despite his lower scores has the temperament and patience for test cricket and number 3.

  • Gerry on August 18, 2013, 4:09 GMT

    Who are these people that keep pushing for Hughes. He has without any shadow of doubt proved that he is not a test standard batsman. Of his 49 test innings 27 have been scores of 20 or less, 17 of these were less than 10. His last 15 test innings average under 26 and includes 9 scores of 10 or less. There are tailenders with better records. It is time for Cricket Australia to get out from behind their desks and go searching for some good young cricketers, surely there are some out there.

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 6:06 GMT

    Better plan - locked room - Rogers, Warnya, Agar, Cownan. Kwaja and Hughes go in First Four out are the batting line up maybe chuck Smith in as well, Clarke 5, Watson LRO (left right out - he'd do a hammy walking in), Haddin, Wade and Paine (remember him?) same scenario, Starc, Siddle, Harris, Bird, Lyon given to the Wallabies to face the blacks, they need forwards that can carry teams on their backs and bring back Dizzy and Warney (both over they're so no airfares), I think Pidge is as well, Mitch as a bat/bowler, Beefy, cuz he got drunk in Queensland and...anyway he qualifies as an Aussie, sorta - problem solved

  • Dummy4 on August 17, 2013, 5:03 GMT

    Rogers 1, Warnya 2, Agar 3, Smith 4, Clarke 5, Watson LRO (left right out), Haddin 6, Starc 7, Siddle 8, Harris 9, Bird 10, Lyon 11 - problem solved

  • Stewart on August 17, 2013, 3:07 GMT

    I can't believe Nic Maddinson is not even being mentioned in this article. He was the best performed batsman by far in the recent series against South Africa A. This is not the misleading one day matches but the 4 day stuff where real cricketers are born. He also seems to bat well in any position in the order, which seems de rigueur with the new way of Aussie cricket. If Shaun Marsh is the answer then the wrong questions are being asked.

  • Dummy4 on August 16, 2013, 14:16 GMT

    @Roshan_P, Khawaja is not good enough against spin to bat down low. Smith is far better suited to this role I reckon as he looks more comfortable against quick bowling with every game and is very good against the spinners.

  • Mike on August 16, 2013, 12:09 GMT

    Sounds like shuffling the deckchairs on the Titanic to me...