November 4, 2012

Australia's batting isn't aggressive enough

The selectors have missed a trick by not using Watson and Warner at the top to dent South Africa's pace attack

A mouth-watering prospect, the upcoming series between Australia and South Africa could hinge on the way the home side bats.

Even without Pat Cummins, Australia have the pace artillery to match South Africa, but there are potential pitfalls for a batting order still relying heavily on ageing stalwarts Michael Hussey and Ricky Ponting. And injury isn't the sole concern.

South Africa have a dangerous pace attack and two of the three Tests will be played on surfaces that assist the quicks. This will severely test the reflexes of Australia's oldest batsmen, so it will help Hussey and Ponting if they get to follow a strong start, with some shine having been taken off the ball when they arrive.

South Africa have a history of making costly mental and tactical errors. While most of these brain snaps have occurred in the shorter formats, the Australians could provoke a telling lapse in this series by mounting a timely attack with the bat. Both Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel can be rattled by aggressive counter-attacks in the short forms of the game. When this happens they lose the plot for a few overs, but they are not the type to be dominated for long periods.

Consequently, I would have preferred an opening combination of Shane Watson and David Warner, who also make the best Australian pairing at the top. Watson is a class player of pace bowling and the perfect partner for Warner. Not only do they bring a right-left combination to the top of the order, they are also aggressive and can put their side in control early. Following them in the line-up are stroke-makers who can maintain the initiative.

After being firm about wanting to open, Watson suddenly started to waver last season. This could have resulted from all the talk of him bowling more and needing to have a breather between fielding and batting. Watson is an opening batsman who should operate as a change bowler. That makes it easier not to use him close to a change of innings.

In the selected side, Watson will bat at No. 3 and Warner will open the batting with fellow left-hander Ed Cowan, a grinding opener who engages in a war of attrition with the new-ball bowlers. This may be counter-productive. South Africa's high-class pace attack could tie him down and put pressure on Warner to keep the score moving.

Warner has displayed the ability to adapt in his short career and he'll have to be alert to stay ahead of Steyn, Morkel and the highly efficient Vernon Philander. While a counter-attack can unsettle Steyn and Morkel, Philander belies his name - he doesn't waver from a straight line and a good length.

This series was the perfect opportunity for Michael Clarke to move up to three. He's in excellent Test form and the ideal player to capitalise on an aggressive start. He has also shown that extra responsibility has boosted his batting rather than weighed him down. If Clarke has allowed himself to be talked out of batting at No. 3, that means he's not convinced he wants to do that job. While Clarke's attacking captaincy gives Australia a distinct advantage in the field, his good batting form could be wasted at No. 5.

Barring injury, Ponting will bat at No. 4. He has admitted his career won't stand another bad trot, but a string of low scores against this South African attack could be the result of good bowling rather than poor form. Ponting comes into the series well primed, having scored heavily against a good attack, and he'll still be a prized wicket for the South Africans. Likewise Hussey, who has a stabilising effect on the middle order and has the technique to withstand a withering spell of fast bowling. The two may be ageing but they are still good players. Sadly for Australian cricket, there are no young batsmen elbowing them out of the team.

Australia have missed an opportunity to seize the initiative in the opening thrust by not choosing their most aggressive batting line-up. Attack is generally the best form of defence, and against a strong South African side this was a chance to test the tourists' often fragile mental resolve.

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