Australia in England 2012 July 4, 2012

Australia need Clarke at No. 3

Michael Clarke is Australia's most accomplished and fluent ODI batsman - he should be setting the agenda at the top of the order

So, rain has ensured that Australia will go home from England with the No. 1 ODI ranking still in their keeping. As far as hollow sensations go, it will be similar to that the players feel at leaving Edgbaston without seeing a single ball bowled, particularly as there are matches in the similarly grey locales of Durham and Manchester to come. Nonetheless, the weather has offered time for reflection as well as frustration, particularly on the topic of where the tourists have fallen down across two matches against opponents operating efficiently - somewhere around third gear - between Test series.

As the coach Mickey Arthur and the national selector John Inverarity have both made clear, far more certainty in Australian cricket can presently be attached to the national team's bowling stocks than to their batting. While the attack on show at Lord's and The Oval looked a little unthreatening at times, the lack of wickets was mitigated by several factors, including the number of accomplished bowlers absent and the difficulties inherent in the loss of the bowling coach Craig McDermott, so steady a guiding hand in the preceding 12 months.

While the batsmen have had to cope with the temporary absence of the eternally composed Michael Hussey due to paternity leave, the more permanent hole left at No. 3 by Ricky Ponting's omission has been plugged about as effectively as the Edgbaston drainage coped with the surfeit of rain around Birmingham. Peter Forrest, George Bailey and Shane Watson have all occupied this most pivotal position since Ponting was dropped, with only the most limited degrees of success. The shuffling has underlined the uncertainty spoken of by Arthur and Inverarity.

Their travails have gone on with the captain Michael Clarke ensconced at No. 4, one position further away from the new ball and generally holding a commission to respond to the agenda set by the top three rather than setting his own. In Test matches, Clarke has insisted on batting at No. 5, and had a highly successful first year in charge while doing so. At No. 4 in ODIs he has done similarly well, starting with a century against Bangladesh in Dhaka in his first innings as the fully fledged captain, and overall piling up 863 runs at 57.53 in 20 matches.

However the removal of Ponting from the team, and the apparent preference for Watson to open with David Warner and so provide a settled and aggressive combination at the top, has left the kind of gap that Clarke really should be filling. The position of No. 3 should go to the ODI team's most accomplished batsman, and on recent evidence there is little doubt that man is Clarke. He is no stranger to batting higher than his present station in limited-overs matches, spending time opening the batting and also at No. 3, where he has made one century - an unbeaten 111 against India at Visakhapatnam in 2010, when acting captain.

Clarke's aversion to a top-order batting spot in Test matches is understandable, given that he struggled notably at No. 4 in the year prior to his ascendancy to the captaincy. The role facing the new ball in Tests, on wickets designed to last over five days and against bowlers posting fields adorned with slips, is not the best use of Clarke's fluent but less than circumspect technique. His ability to play quality spin bowling with aggression and poise is also a significant factor in favour of his positioning in the middle order.

But limited-overs cricket makes different demands on players, not least the ability to score quickly and fluently from the start, something Clarke has invariably done well. Though he is not noted as a power-hitter, Clarke can pierce fields as well as any batsman in the world, and in the early overs of an ODI has ample opportunity to do so before the circle restrictions are relaxed. The No. 3 position also affords a batsman the best opportunity outside opening of batting through an innings and making a century, something Clarke has proven himself adept at across all levels.

Plenty of attractive middle-order players in Tests have made a success of the No. 3 role at limited-overs level, enjoying the greater freedom afforded by a harder ball and restricted field settings. Australia's long-time Test match No. 3 David Boon deferred to two players commonly batting beneath him in Tests, first Dean Jones then Mark Waugh, as they were deemed the most dynamic players to push an Australia innings forward during the eras of Allan Border and Mark Taylor. Ponting batted at No. 3 for Australia in ODIs well before he became the sole occupier of the same position in Tests.

The need to pace a limited-overs innings through its various phases, from the early opportunities to score, the need to work the ball around in the middle and then to attack at the end, is also critical to the position. It requires a level of versatility that Clarke possesses in abundance. The same cannot quite be said for the others who have batted at No. 3 since Ponting.

Watson's fast starts make him an intimidating opening batsman but his tendency to stagnate in the middle overs, plus his concerns about bowling workloads and his general energy levels mean he is less likely to see an innings out. Forrest's runs are scored at a steady pace but he lacks the authority to hold such a pivotal position. Bailey has shown himself capable of batting in various positions, but is still getting established and is naturally intent on establishing himself at the crease and in the team before he worries about laying down a marker for the rest.

In contrast, Clarke is very capable of setting that agenda, and for the moment is the Australia batsman most capable of doing the job in ODIs. It may not be his personal preference, but Clarke has long stated that his priorities must be identical to those of his team. When Australia's first wicket falls at Durham, England would much prefer to see Forrest or Bailey walking out, rather than Clarke dictating terms with a promotion. His elevation to No. 3 would be a far more significant and worthwhile step for the tourists on this trip than the rain-assisted retention of the ICC's top ranking.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here