December 18, 2011

Clarke should move up to No. 3

Ponting is on his way out and there is no one else experienced enough to bat at that position. The captain must lead from the front

As strange as it may sound, there could be some relief in sight for Australia's beleaguered batsmen. Despite their No. 3 ranking, India's bowling doesn't match up as well as the New Zealand attack did in favourable conditions. The first two Tests were played in the perfect conditions for swing and seam bowling, which is the strength of New Zealand's bowlers and the Achilles heel of the Australian batting line-up.

Unless Zaheer Khan is fully fit, India aren't so well-endowed when it comes to proven swing bowlers. If the local curators continue to leave grass on the pitches, as they have done over the past couple of summers, it will suit Australia's emerging pace attack.

The sight of greenish pitches will have the Indian batsmen reeling, and consequently the Australian pace bowlers will have a psychological advantage. However, this shouldn't be taken for granted, because the Indian line-up is very experienced and talented. An hour of carnage at the hands of the highly combustible Virender Sehwag and Australia could just as easily be at a disadvantage.

While the Australian attack has recently shown encouraging signs, the batting has been woefully inconsistent. The quickest way to rectify that problem is to sort out the top order; the first three batsmen set the tone for consistency. Shane Watson's return - bowling or not - will help in this regard, as he should team up well with the adventurous David Warner. With Ricky Ponting now preparing for a move to a retirement village rather than looking to increase his mortgage, it's time to find a long-term solution in the No. 3 spot. Usman Khawaja isn't the answer, as he's currently not quite capable of taking charge of an innings in the manner expected of a No. 3. Shaun Marsh could prove suitable but his injury history is a concern, and resorting to a back-to-the-future solution by reinstating Simon Katich isn't the answer either. Most of Australia's memorable moments of late have been provided by the younger brigade, and the selectors' gaze should be focused forward and not in the rearview mirror.

It's time for Michael Clarke to shoulder an extra responsibility and claim the No. 3 role. He has the experience, the Test record and the ability to take charge of an innings. He's also in form and has responded well to extra responsibility in his short captaincy career. This move would also enhance his reputation within the team for leading from the front. It would leave Australia with a vastly experienced top order, apart from the exciting Warner, and then a younger player could slot in between Ponting at four and Michael Hussey at six. Khawaja could fill that spot or else the allrounder Dan Christian could bat at six, behind Michael Hussey, if more bowling options are needed.

India's best chances for victory come when Sehwag and Zaheer fire together. Sehwag makes big scores quickly and Zaheer has the ability to claim five-wicket hauls - two major ingredients in winning Test matches.

Sehwag's confrontation with James Pattinson will not only be a highlight of the summer, it could well shape the series. Pattinson has one big advantage over most other opening bowlers who have been challenged by the belligerently brilliant Sehwag: he is led by a captain who isn't easily intimidated and won't cower behind a containment strategy.

Equally, if the Australian top order can blunt Zaheer, it will help them post challenging totals for the strong Indian line-up. One area where Australia does surpass India is in the injury toll, but it's a close-run thing. Zaheer is a constant candidate for the medical ward and Ishant Sharma has ongoing ankle problems. India will miss the swing bowling of the injured Praveen Kumar, but don't be surprised if Umesh Yadav thrives in the conditions. Yadav has some pace, but just as importantly, he has the potential to swing the ball and always looks like he's bowling to a plan.

The venues for the Indian Tests will slightly favour Australia. The SCG is the only ground where India might claim a spin advantage. The WACA should definitely suit Australia, while both the MCG and Adelaide Oval will encourage pace bowlers early.

If Australia can keep Sehwag under control and find the consistency in their batting order to neutralise Zaheer, they'll greatly increase their chances of defeating India. Of these two big ifs, the latter is the less likely, but then again Australia's batting is predictably unpredictable.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist