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Unless Phillip Hughes turns his tour around in the second innings, the time may have come for a reworking of Australia's batting order
March 2, 2013
Just as the script for a Michael Clarke innings has become predictable - score big after coming in at three for not much - it is also easy to guess how he will answer certain questions. When asked by the media about team selections, Clarke generally replies that: "We need to pick the 11 players who will give us the best chance of success in these conditions". And when pressed on a possible move up the batting order from his No. 5 position, Clarke usually says: "I'll bat wherever the team needs me".
It is becoming increasingly clear that in Indian conditions, Australia need Clarke to come in higher than No. 5. It is also apparent that Phillip Hughes has little chance of contributing to team success in India given his ongoing struggles against the turning ball. Unless Hughes finds a way to overcome his problem in the second innings, Australia's selectors should consider whether there is a common solution to the two issues: Hughes out, Shane Watson to No.3 and Clarke to No.4.
Hughes is a fine batsman who piles up centuries in first-class cricket and he has made improvements to his game since he was dropped from the Test team in late 2011. Unfortunately for Australia's hopes on this tour, his game against quality spin remains a weakness. On the first day in Hyderabad, Hughes showed some positive signs against the seamers and struck four boundaries on his way to 19. But here is a visual representation of his work against spin in this innings:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . w
Twenty-three dot balls and then he fell, caught behind trying to force a cut. The past 30 deliveries of spin that Hughes has faced in this series have brought not a single run but have cost him his wicket three times. A nasty spitting ball got him in the second innings in Chennai, but he could not blame the pitch for his first-innings wicket there, or in Hyderabad. And in the tour match against India A he was dismissed by spin in both innings, for 1 and 19.
Clarke says his batsmen need their own individual plans to counter spin in India; it is not clear that Hughes has one. He is watchful but just cannot score. He feels forward tentatively to defend or plays back nervously. Sometimes he gets caught in between. Simply finding a single to rotate the strike becomes an impossible task. When he tries to force the ball through off it seems an edge is inevitable.
In his last Test match in Asia before this tour Hughes scored a century, but that was on a pitch at the SSC in Colombo that Wisden said "might just be the best road in the country". There, Hughes was driving with the confidence of Sebastian Vettel; here he has looked more like roadkill. If the selectors are serious about picking the best XI for the conditions, Hughes in this form is not part of it. If the bowling attack can be altered from match to match to suit conditions, why not the batting line-up?
Of course, the question is whether the backup batsmen in Australia's squad would do any better. Usman Khawaja was unbeaten on 30 when the warm-up match against India A in Chennai was declared a draw. When Steven Smith was picked as another reserve batsman, the national selector John Inverarity said it was in part because "he uses his feet really well and plays spin bowling really well". If the selectors have that faith, then either he or Khawaja is worth a try at No.5.
That would also allow Watson to move up closer to the new ball at first drop and Clarke to come in at No. 4. Alastair Cook led England's successful tour of India late last year by scoring a mountain of runs from the very top of the order. He set the tone. As well as Clarke is playing, it is difficult for him to do the same when he is followed only by the wicketkeeper, allrounders and bowlers. But it is also hard for him to bat any higher in a side that has four openers: Watson, Hughes, Ed Cowan and David Warner.
On the first day in Hyderabad, Clarke came to the crease with Australia at 57 for 3. He had support from Matthew Wade during an Australian record fifth-wicket stand in India but that was followed by a lower-order collapse. He fell for 91 hitting across the line and trying for quick runs before he ran out of partners. There is no guarantee that wouldn't happen if he batted at No.4 as well, but the chances should be a little slimmer.
Clarke has now scored 2544 runs as Test captain at an average of 70.66, second only on the average list to Don Bradman among captains who have led their countries in at least 10 Tests. Most of those runs have come at No.5 but there is no reason he should not succeed at No.4 as well. Coming at three down for very few, as he has so often, is akin to a top-order position anyway. And by moving up, he can stabilise things with an extra specialist batsman still to come.
Hughes is not the only man struggling in this top order, though Watson, Cowan and Warner have looked more likely to score. And such a change would not necessarily need to extend to the Ashes. Hughes would enjoy facing England's fast bowlers more than India's spinners, despite the fact that they found him out in England in 2009. Sidelining him in India does not mean he cannot play a part in conditions more suited to his style. Certainly he could keep the pressure on Cowan as an alternative opener.
And of course, there is still another innings of this Test to go. Perhaps Hughes has learnt from his mistakes. Maybe he will redeem himself with a second-innings hundred. If he does, good luck to him. Australia are a better team when Hughes translates his state form to Test cricket. But if his travails against spin continue, for Australia's sake in this series alone it might be time to reconsider his role in the short term.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
© ESPN EMEA Ltd.
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