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