South Africa v Australia, 3rd Test, Cape Town, 1st day March 19, 2009

Unbalanced Australia pay the price

There was just one problem for Australia - five spare bowlers, no extra batsmen - which meant there was no one to cover for an injured batsman

Brad Haddin was batting at No. 6, a position Adam Gilchrist was rarely asked to fill © Getty Images

Doug Bollinger, Brett Geeves, Bryce McGain, Steve Magoffin and Nathan Hauritz were the Australian squad members who watched on from the dressing room in Durban. There was plenty of variety in the group: a left-arm fast bowler, two right-arm seamers, a legspinner and an offspinner. There was just one problem - five spare bowlers, no extra batsmen.

It didn't matter at the Wanderers or Kingsmead but on the first day at Newlands it came back to bite Australia when Marcus North was struck down with a bout of gastro and spent the night before the match in hospital on a drip. A team that had spent the first two Tests looking so well-balanced it was like it had been set with a spirit level was suddenly off-centre.

In one sense it gave the selectors an easy decision as they had spent the past few days trying to work out how they could squeeze the legspinner McGain into the side while causing minimum disruption to a successful team. But what it really did was expose a big hole in what was otherwise a strong squad.

The selectors were widely praised for the solid touring party they picked for this trip and their good judgment was borne out in the 2-0 scoreline leading in to this match. But there's no avoiding the fact that they've been caught out by the lack of a spare batsman. An appropriate touring group isn't just about the starting XI; there needs to be balance in the back-up tier as well.

As it turned out Australia replaced North, a man with a first-class batting average of 44.09, with McGain, a genuine tailender whose average is 11.50. Brad Haddin was forced to move up to No. 6, a position that his magnificent predecessor Adam Gilchrist rarely occupied in Tests, and Andrew McDonald found himself at No. 7.

And what happened? They battled to 209, which was their lowest first-innings total since the 2005 Ashes. South Africa bowled well and were at their liveliest for the whole series so maybe an extra batsman wouldn't have made a difference. But when Australia found themselves on similarly shaky ground in Johannesburg it was North at No. 6 who anchored the comeback.

"Obviously the balance of the team is slightly different," the opener Simon Katich said after a day when he top scored with 55 and two of the top five made ducks. "[North] has played really well for us at six this series so him not being available due to being in hospital last night was a big loss."

So while Geeves, Hauritz and Bollinger huddled on the boundary - Magoffin has flown home - with nothing to do but run drinks and maybe dash away for an occasional trundle in the nets, prolific scorers like Brad Hodge, Michael Klinger and Callum Ferguson were at home in Australia with their feet up after the end of the domestic season. Had the series been alive, it could have been a costly error in judgment.

The problem stems from the fact that when they left Australia, McDonald was the incumbent No. 6 having filled that role in Sydney. He has been a valuable member of the team in South Africa, where his stump-to-stump bowling has troubled the home side, but he has not looked like a Test-quality batsman. In Cape Town, not for the first time this trip, he was outshone in the lower order by Mitchell Johnson and a familiar tentative prod was edged to slip for 13.

The selectors made a mistake. It hasn't cost them the series and it will be forgotten as soon as they leave South Africa with trophy in hand. But in a year when Australia are considering cutting back the numbers in their Ashes squad, it's a situation that should serve as a cautionary tale. Five spare bowlers don't equal one batsman.

Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo