August 25, 2013

The power of three

The importance of Shane Watson's belligerent century at The Oval can't be overstated
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Every good team has a strong No. 3 batsman and that has been evident in the most successful Test sides of recent times.

India had Rahul Dravid with his technical efficiency and are now blessed with Cheteshwar Pujara, whose taste for big scores would satisfy a master chef. South Africa have Hashim Amla, a run-making machine, and England's Jonathan Trott performed a similar role until recently. It's no surprise that Trott's slump has coincided with England putting up lower totals. Sri Lanka have the silky smooth Kumar Sangakkara and Australia had an ideal prototype in Ricky Ponting.

However, since Ponting retired, the No. 3 position has been a black hole during a period of limited Australian success. That's why the importance of Shane Watson's belligerent century at The Oval can't be overstated.

Ponting was the latest in a long line of Australian No. 3s who excelled in successful teams, a list that includes illustrious counterattackers like Don Bradman, Neil Harvey, Clem Hill and Charlie Macartney.

To validate the credentials of the latter two: Hill was once widely regarded as the best left-hander in the game; and Macartney uttered the words, "Some cove's going to cop it today" before strapping on his pads to face Nottinghamshire in 1921. He lived up to his boast by rattling 345 in 232 minutes, still the fastest first-class triple-century (in terms of balls faced).

After yet another shuffle of the Australian batting order Watson was at No. 3 for the first time in this series, and he proceeded to bat in a similarly ambitious mode. His defence was more solid than in the earlier Tests, he produced flowing drives to full deliveries and dispatched the shorter ones with authoritative pull shots.

However, it was his match-awareness that caught the eye. He took charge of the game with the advent of England's two debutant bowlers. Admittedly, Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan delivered some dross but the effect of that was heightened by Watson's eagerness to stamp his authority on the innings.

This is what a successful Test team needs from their No. 3: a player who can come in at the fall of an early wicket but not be frightened to launch a counterattack the moment he feels comfortable. It's a ploy that can unnerve an opposition expecting a more measured response. A successful No. 3 must also be a decent player of spin bowling because he is expected to regularly convert starts into big scores. For the first time in ages Watson achieved that goal, and for only the second time since Ponting's departure, an Australian No. 3 scored a Test century.

There is a lot of codswallop spoken and written about the No. 3 spot. For instance, some have said it's the most difficult batting position when it is, in fact, the best place in the order to bat. A good No. 3 has the opportunity to set the pattern of play rather than follow the established trend. It's far easier coming in at one for very few than three for not many; one wicket can be a fluke, whereas three down is a collapse.

Then there's the notion that the "poor old No. 3" might have to face the second ball of an innings. If you're not mentally ready to enter the fray at 0 for 1 then you're not in the right frame of mind to bat at first drop. A No. 3 doesn't yearn for an opener to be dismissed early, but it is better to bat when you're fresh rather than after you've been sitting around for a few hours.

Watson still has much to prove before he's an established top-class No. 3. However, he has a number of traits that are required, not the least of them being an ability to counterattack against the new ball.

Australia will not return to being a strong batting side until they at least find a capable No. 3. Watson still has to show he can handle that task against consistently good bowling on a regular basis. However, his credentials place him well ahead of the nearest challenger in the Australian side for this crucial batting position.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator for Channel 9, and a columnist

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on August 27, 2013, 13:25 GMT

    As fantastic as Watson's century was, his performance issues (and dare I say most of the Aussie batsman) are not on flat pitches but rather on a difficult morning / afternoon when the ball is swinging and seaming. Swinging and seaming balls are not new to the game of cricket and great cricket teams have always managed to win test matches despite difficult conditions. Most first class batsman are able to deal with good bowling as long as the ball is not moving. Only the really great batsman manage to keep their wicket through a really tough few hours when the ball is darting around. I'm just guessing here; maybe the Aussie batsman spend too much time practicing against a ball machine. For some real conditions, get Ryan Harris / Mitchell Starc / etc to bowl to you in the nets with a bright red cherry on an overcast day!

  • dummy4fb on August 27, 2013, 11:22 GMT

    Popcorn, Steve Waugh wasn't played at the top of the order at the start of his career - he was played well down the order and even as he improved he only inched up the batting order. Cowan cannot score and even when he does he has an atrocious strike rate. Khawaja may well be a good number 3 in time but he needs several more seasons grafting it out at Shield level before he's a genuine test player. It took Hayden or Hussey and Lehmann years before they got a go. I'm very sad that Hughes wasn't stuck with as he had showed some real grit at times. He proved that he could keep his head. Anyway it is time to leave poor Watson in one spot for a bit and number 3 wouldn't be the worst choice.

  • MaruthuDelft on August 26, 2013, 18:22 GMT

    So much was expected from Watson. He himself expected a lot from him. Nothing materialised. It is possible those would haunt him but also push him for the next few years; just like the initial failures turned Matthew Hayden into a legend. We will know that within the next 3 tests; they are around the corner; no need to speculate.

  • dummy4fb on August 26, 2013, 17:28 GMT

    In some ways, I agree with Chappel. At the same time, I am wondering what kind of coaches Australia has been paying since Ponting retired. Clark though Australia's best batsman by more than a mile was not invited OR prodded OR challenged into taking up the # 3 slot. He was allowed to sacrifice less experienced batsmen there, while he went on scoring a moderate # of runs at # 5 where he was comfortable. Australia's team management do need to answer a basic question - why was Clark not invited / challenged / prodded into moving out of his own comfort zone for the betterment of the side ? If they had tried & Clark was unwilling, it would indicate that Clark was putting himself above the team - why are they putting up with Clark ?

  • CricketMaan on August 26, 2013, 14:38 GMT

    @Chappelli - Kind words on Pujara, but he too hasn't yet proved himself on SA, Eng and Aus tracks and unless he does that, none will approve his as No.3. He has potential but needs to convert them, for me Virat Kholi is more like a No.3 should be coz he can combine agression with control. He probably might end up doing what Pup does. As for watto, that 176 was at Oval against Woakes and Kerrigan, can he do that at Gabba against Jimmy, Stuart and Bres/Tremlett?

  • Roshan_P on August 26, 2013, 11:43 GMT

    Now Watson and Smith are in the side for a good few Tests, they have to prove themselves consistently in the upcoming series. Then we'll see if they are up to the challenge.

  • alarky on August 26, 2013, 11:32 GMT

    Ian, I believe that I'm your most ardent fan! I rate you as the best cricket analyst on earth right now! You're not one who put up with nonsense depending on the SIZE of the cricketer's name - you call a spade a spade! However, I want to differ a bit with you when you say, " There is a lot ... . spoken and written about the No. 3 spot...., some have said it's the most difficult batting position when it is, in fact, the best place in the order to bat". Before I say why, I'm very careful in doing so, knowing that it's the position where you performed with great distinction for your country for many years. My take on the No.3 position is that it's only a nice spot when you have two very good openers, as you had in Stockpool and Redpath. They hardly made you walk to the wicket before you were ready! But I know of some modern No 3s who came to bat nearly every time with under 10 on the Board, having to face the fastest bowlers with their tails up and adrenalin pumping - most difficult spot!

  • balajik1968 on August 26, 2013, 8:23 GMT

    landl47 Chappell has praised this one innings, but is still holding judgement on whether Watson can nail down the No.3 slot. More than Watson, he has held forth on the No.3 slot and its significance in the batting order. It is no coincidence that Australia's dip in fortunes started once Ponting started struggling for runs.

  • Insult_2_Injury on August 26, 2013, 6:35 GMT

    Agreed that a consistent number 3 is a vital link in the Australian revival, but it is unlikely to be Watson. As the second innings showed, Watson is a movable asset in the side. Could not imagine Ponting, Amla, Trott or any other number three opening in a similar situation to this. It seemed unnecessary as there was time for him to follow Warner, but this seems to be the way Australia will always use Watson. As he seems to miss as much through injury as he plays and is 32, he's not really the stability the Aussies need. Time for Clarke & Lehmann to manufacture a no. 3 as there doesn't seem to be one knocking down the door in Shield. I still like Khawaja and if they turn him into a counter attacker, we might have the right option with a technique. He not only needs a role, he needs a chance to settle through a bad trot.

  • AidanFX on August 26, 2013, 4:30 GMT

    Problem is he keeps getting shuffled around - he is largely to blame. Warner can definitely make it as opener. The Aus batting will take a long time to gel - there is hope but it will take time. If they can get Pattinson on the park frequently and the sooner Cummins can make it the better - at the very least Australia need to start with continuing to develop a soild bowling line up and over time the batting can catch up.