January 28, 2012

Warner's Achilles heel

The Australia opener has been found out by spin. How he copes against slow bowling will be crucial to his future

Quality offspin is David Warner's Achilles heel. I do not remember, in the modern game, watching a batsman appear so confident against all forms of fast and medium-paced bowling only to wither and flop against an offspinner, like Warner did on a batsman's paradise late on day three of the Adelaide Test match.

India's Ravi Ashwin is no world-beater, but in half an hour of quality spin he reduced Warner to floundering like a panic-stricken man feverishly treading water in shark-infested waters. In the wake of Warner's amazing batting this summer, it was extraordinary to watch his footwork collapse as he stumbled and stuttered about trying to fathom Ashwin's flighted, turning deliveries.

Warner wasn't the only Australian batsman to struggle against an Indian team that has been battered physically and psychologically by Australia in a Test series as one-sided as Rafael Nadal up against Duncan Fletcher on centre court at Wimbledon. Opener Ed Cowan appears to be a poor man's Simon Katich, and will surely disappear from the Test stage once Shane Watson returns from injury. Shaun Marsh might have been "done" lbw, but the signs were obvious: He was never going to last. If Zaheer Khan didn't get him, Ashwin would have.

Michael Clarke's decision to bat again was okay, given that the sun had beaten relentlessly down on the backs of his tireless bowlers for much of the day and they deserved a rest. But Australia's batting also exposed their top order. That they have struggled against this pop-gun Indian attack, where only Zaheer resembles anything like a genuine Test match fast bowler, must concern the Test selectors. Thank heavens for the batting form of Clarke and Ricky Ponting, whose batting heroics have tended to paper over the cracks at the top of the order. When a side is winning, one tends to forget the failures of some because of the greatness of others. While Cowan and Marsh don't appear to have found the steel to cement their Test spots, Warner is a whole different kettle of fish. After he hit that wonderful hundred against New Zealand on a track doing a bit in Hobart and then the amazing 180 against India in Perth, we all thought we were witnessing the beginning of a Bradman-like career. Warner's breathtaking shots off the fast men, which he despatched back over the bowler's head and into the crowd, made us stand and cheer.

But, and this is telling, he did not face a specialist spin bowler in either Test. In Hobart, New Zealand were without the world-class Daniel Vettori, and Ashwin didn't play in Perth.

I always thought the jury was out on Warner, because he is very much a stand-and-deliver merchant. There seems little movement of his feet against pace; he either goes back and smashes the ball over midwicket or goes forward and belts it down the ground. Still, he has a fairly solid defence and he plays the horizontal bat strokes - the pull and the cut - very well. Yet all the time he is using the pace of the bowler to help boost the power of his strokeplay.

Even to the casual observer it would have been obvious that if pace didn't worry him, some other form of bowling might. One wonders why in this era of high-technical coaching and endless replays of video footage, someone in the opposition camp did not hit upon the obvious. Why, until the fourth Test of a lost rubber, didn't the Indians think of looking into how good Warner might be against top-flight spin?

It is offspin, the ball turning away from Warner, that makes him look vulnerable. Now Ashwin hasn't bowled consistently this summer, and he is no Erapalli Prasanna, not even in the same class as Harbhajan Singh, but his bowling around the wicket to Warner late on the third day in Adelaide has undoubtedly given bowlers heart. Fast bowlers the world over should be rejoicing, for they know that spinners will do the bulk of the work against Warner in Tests from now on. Graeme Swann will be licking his lips if Warner is still around for the Ashes in 2013.

Warner must realise that the best way to learn to play spin bowling is to get up the other end. That means taking singles, rotating the strike. As a spinner I always wanted to "work" on the same batsman, and I would rather be hit for a boundary than go for three singles in any one over

Admittedly, Ashwin bowled a couple of really good balls, but when Warner has to make the pace against a bowler who flights it and spins it, he is in real trouble. Against Prasanna, who spun the ball hard to make it curve and dip wickedly, Warner would be out in an over.

David Hookes was a left-hander and a rival to the great Adam Gilchrist as a striker of the ball against pace, but good spin bowling always brought Hookesy undone. In 1980 he toured Pakistan, scoring 12 runs in eight completed innings - not a great return for a specialist batsman, and he did confess that four of those runs actually were leg byes. Hookes' batting philosophy was about cracking boundaries, and he often did, against the fastest bowlers, including the hurricane West Indian pair of Michael Holding and Andy Roberts, speed merchants who made the bowlers Warner has faced this summer looked pedestrian. But he never did learn to cope against good spin bowling. He always looked to hit boundaries, and while he did so regularly against myriad fast bowlers, spinners dominated him and prevented him from having a stellar Test career.

Warner must realise, as Hookes did not, that the best way to learn to play spin bowling is to get up the other end. That means taking singles, rotating the strike. Batsmen who consistently failed to combat the spin of Shane Warne rue that they became bogged down at Warne's end - fatal, because eventually any batsman intent on defence would be defeated by a hard-spun Warne ball arriving in a dipping arc and rearing menacingly like a spitting cobra. As a spinner I always wanted to "work" on the same batsman, and I would rather be hit for a boundary than go for three singles in any one over.

There was a time when Matthew Hayden was a poor player of quality spin. Although a great a hitter of the quicks, he used to get bogged down against the spinners. He wouldn't take singles, thereby rotating the strike to upset the rhythm of the bowler.

He did eventually find a way out: the slog sweep. A big man with a reach like a sick dog, Hayden clubbed the ball in front or behind square leg. Once a batsman who struggled against Harbhajan's offspin, Hayden found the slog sweep a method to belt him unmercifully. Warner needs to find a way, and I believe he won't get away with clubbing against the spin, for the simple reason that he doesn't have a long reach, and might find himself short of the pitch of the ball and top-edging to backward square or deep square leg.

Taking singles is the way for Warner. The more the strike is rotated, the greater the pressure on the bowler. Any spinner gets frustrated by singles being scored off his bowling, and with the frustration come more loose deliveries - a greater ratio of potential "four" balls for the batsman.

Warner needs to learn this method of playing spin quickly, otherwise his star will burn out soon. The Australian selectors may have to talk Michael Clarke into batting No. 3, for Marsh is clearly out of his depth, and so too Usman Khawaja, both of whom were tried and have failed at that position. If Clarke bats - as he should now do - at three, and Watson returns to open, South Australia's Dan Christian fits nicely down the list as a batting allrounder, and the Australian team becomes better balanced.

Australia need Warner to knuckle down and learn to play the slow men. Given the manner is which he turned himself into a Test match batsman after his explosion onto the scene against South Africa in a T20 game at the MCG a couple of years back, Warner has the steel and resolve to find a way to succeed against the best spinners. Let's hope he does, for Australia needs all its men to be firing on all cylinders come the much-awaited Ashes series in England next year.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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