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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sharon on July 6, 2012, 21:00 GMT

    @jimmy2s "Rain in New Zealand is the only reason England retained the top test ranking..."! What on Earth are you talking about!? Comedy Boy! How can New Zealand be blamed for South Africa number 2??? Only reason South Africa is number 2 - they cannot beat ultra-weak minnow team like India and Australia in their own fine African home. Correct this deficiency and South Africa could be class "number one" with full legitimacy. Till then is best to realise that England are at home here - you make mistake if you discount them.

  • John on July 6, 2012, 15:40 GMT

    @jimmy2s on (July 04 2012, 22:00 PM GMT) Was rain also the reason you dropped home tests against SL and Australia and the fact that your side hasn't beaten a top 4 side home or away for over 3 years ?

  • david on July 6, 2012, 10:02 GMT

    jimmys2 dont use rain as an excuse to the saffers not been #1. look at your home record, thats the reason you are not in that position. last few years eng can look at games we should have won. if an aussie umpire had turned on his sound mike the last time we played SA that game might have changed. its cricket rain it is part an parcel of this great game.

  • Geoffrey on July 6, 2012, 9:36 GMT

    Pup was never a number 3. He may have to fill that role though as there isn't anyone in Australia good enough to fill even a hard handed decrepit Ponting at 3.

  • Andrew on July 6, 2012, 7:44 GMT

    @Andrew Sanderson - I like that idea - although more about Christian coming up the order - when there are power plays on.

  • Roo on July 6, 2012, 7:10 GMT

    Very funny reading all those bagging Oz & that the batting is dead - after all, this is just a made up story with no factual basis backing it up... Where Clarke bats is up to Clarke - he has the duty to pick the batting order as he is the captain... What is a problem is the selection of players to fill the top 3 in ODI's & the top 4 in Tests... Still very much a moot point which all Oz fans see as not being settled at all atm...

  • Dummy4 on July 6, 2012, 7:09 GMT

    I think the answer is simple. No 3 has to be a batsman who can play through the innings and score a century, maybe at a strike rate of over 80. In the current lot since lHussey is not available it has to be only Clarke. He can score hundreds like Warner can. I am not sure of the others. I do feel that Clarke knows his importance to the team and perhaps is more comfortable to come in when the ball is older at least in England where the ball moves more than in other parts of the world. But I am not sure that is serving the purpose as Forrest did not hang around for too long. However in all fairness these people must be given more chances and speaking of chances why is Callum Ferguson not being given an extended run. He was a certainty before getting injured. Why must he fight to make runs to get back into the team ? He has more strokes and ability to rotate the strike better than Bailey for instance. Difficult times, maybe ponting has a place for another year at least Ramanujam sridhar

  • Dummy4 on July 6, 2012, 6:02 GMT

    I'd like to see Australia try something a little different and not have a set batting order outside of the openers, and put in a batsman at the fall of the wicket that reflects the needs of the game. If the openers are bogged down at the fall of a wicket, put someone in that can counter that. If they were racing along, put someone in that can keep the runs flowing. Keep a steady player back in case of a collapse, etc.

  • Randolph on July 6, 2012, 4:57 GMT

    Much like Tendulkar, as long as he continues to hide at 4 or 5 he will never be held in the same class as Ponting. Come on Pup, step up to the plate.

  • Andrew on July 6, 2012, 1:56 GMT

    @RightArmEverything - when I read his comment I started by going "here, here", then I read the next bit & rolled my eyes - ah well!

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