India v Australia, 2nd Test, Hyderabad, 1st day March 2, 2013

Two problems, one solution?

Unless Phillip Hughes turns his tour around in the second innings, the time may have come for a reworking of Australia's batting order

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:

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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 here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • James on March 4, 2013, 12:27 GMT

    I feel sorry for Hughes because despite not being up to it he constantly keeps getting picked. It doesn't matter where he bats. Get Khawaja in.

  • Dummy4 on March 4, 2013, 11:09 GMT

    Very dissapointing 2 see the aus team performences in tatters but i feel dat they deserve it as well.................not only 4 their cunning ways of winning matches but also 4 lack of respect dat their senior members wer met wid....wer is simon katich,marcus north,nathan hauritz why did mike hussey retire b4 da test series??? i reckon the presence of some of these seniors wud hav made a diff....huss 2 me is the best player of spin all da above players have been scapegoats 4 overall team sucks 2 see only indian spinners dominate nd da series slowly is loosing a proper fight nd seems alien 4 aus maxwell nd cowan not doin a gr8 job,watson gettin diff ways of dismissals hughes prbly not seems 2 even play a club level spinner prply nd warner seems 2 flirt wid danger everytym nd lastly wade seems 2 b moody nd plays only wen feelin fine.........clark nd henriques r doin a gud job da least can b spoken abt siddle,dohertynd lyon only pattinson luks a wkt taker no m johnsn

  • Peter on March 3, 2013, 11:03 GMT

    If Watson is not bowling he shouldn't be in the team. His batting has always looked good. But he finds way to get out after a start. I was pleased with the selection of Cowan when he was first called up. But he also seems to get out after starts. Australia need batsman who can bat long innings. I don't care if they bat slow.

    Clarke poor record at 4 might be on the back of his mind. Definitely he needs to move up, and there really is no reason for him to not succeed there. People tend to bat well around Clarke, instead of 3-50 odd, it might be 3-100 instead which makes a lot of difference for inexperienced batsmen coming in.

    Selection of Maxwell is strange. Remember the failure of picking Cameron White as a spinner? Might as well just stick with 6 good batsmen and 4 specialist bowlers.

  • mick on March 3, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    i cannot work out why Australia played 10 odi games after the test series with Sri Lanka finished. Our issues with spin were highlighted by Rangana Herath in the SCG test. Our test squad should have been in India, facing as much spin as possible in the lead up

  • piyush on March 3, 2013, 10:37 GMT

    they have made a blunder by picking maxwell. he is more of a batsmen who can bowl.they have gone in the test match with 3 strike bowlers + 2 support bowlers.

    my Aus Xi would be- Warner,watson,shaun marsh,clarke,ferguson ,moises,wade,pattinson,siddle,starc+lyon

  • Gary on March 3, 2013, 10:23 GMT

    Once again we have the Cricinfo staff refusing to put the pressure on their mate Cowan. He has had more chances than anyone in the last decade. He unbalances the side as he adds nothing, cant field, cant bowl and averages just 30? Siddle also has done nothing. Maxwell should not have been selected. Drop Cowan and Maxwell play Steve Smith, and bring over S. O'keefe and Bailey and T.Paine for Wade if he is injured. Warner, Watson, Hughes,Clark, (Bailey) , S.Smith, Henriques, Paine,S.O'keefe, Johnson, Pattinson. Lyon.

  • Don on March 3, 2013, 9:52 GMT

    Sensible ideas put forward in this article. Australia has to think about making some changes, otherwise it will be a 4 to nil series result for India.

    ,ime for Clarke to go up the order, so that he can try to establish a platform, instead of mounting a forlorn rearguard action.

    As for Hughes, he is averaging mid thirties after 31 Tests - simply not good enough, and certainly not good enough for him to be untouchable. His lack of footwork against the deviating ball has again found him out.

    If Plan A is failing, you don't stick to it ad infinitum. Time for Plan B.

  • Simon on March 3, 2013, 8:34 GMT

    Everyone is saying Clarke should move up the order but he probably does not want to because he has a terrible record at 4. He averages 22 after 19 matches there. He was borderline about to get dropped by the end of that. In contrast he has always been brilliant at 5. He averages about 54 after 79 games. Wierd stat I agree but he clearly is not very comfortable at 4 and he is incredible at 5 so I say don't move him!!

  • Peter on March 3, 2013, 6:48 GMT

    @Cpt.Meanster. I have to agree with you on the selection of Doherty & Maxwell, both well short of test class standard & to be blunt the decision has many of us here scratching our heads as well. I do have to point out though, for all his shortcomings in the longer form of the game, Maxwell (IMHO) is or will soon be, one of the most dynamic T20 players about. He has everything needed for this format & I am certain opinions aboOt him will change in the forthcoming IPL. He is dynamic with bat in hand, almost peerless as a fielder & can at least roll his arm over, pretty much the perfect package for this format. Dohery, a good honest bowler in the short form. What we are seeing isn't surprising many of us in the least.