Taylor calls for Watson to be Ashes opener
Mark Taylor believes restoring Shane Watson to the opening position and shifting David Warner down to No.5 or 6 could be the formula Australia need to post challenging totals on the upcoming Ashes tour. The Australians are preparing to depart for England this weekend ahead of the Champions Trophy and Ashes campaign and after their disastrous series in India in February and March, there remain plenty of questions about the make-up of their batting line-up.
Chief among those is how to structure the top order given that the squad includes five potential opening batsmen: Watson, Warner, Ed Cowan, Chris Rogers and Phillip Hughes. Cowan and Warner are the incumbent openers but neither man has made himself untouchable and the inclusion of the veteran state and county batsman Rogers, who has nearly 20,000 first-class runs to his name, has raised the possibility of a shake-up to the top three.
There is also the matter of how to get the best out of Watson, who in the past two years has averaged 24.11 in Tests while batting anywhere from the opening position to No.5. Overall, Watson's average as a Test opener is a more robust 43.06 and Taylor, the former Test captain and opener who will be covering part of the Ashes as a commentator, believes the warm-up matches in Somerset and Worcestershire before the first Test will be telling.
"I think what they'll do is they'll use the first couple of county games to decide who is going to open the batting," Taylor told Radio Sport National. "I think Chris Rogers is right in the frame to open the batting. If I was a selector I would be looking at having Shane Watson as an opener as well. Shane Watson to me has been struggling now for 18 months or maybe two years. I think one of the reasons he's struggling is he's not really sure where he should play.
"If you look at his record, he plays his best opening the batting. Every time he bats down at four, five or six and tries to be a bowler also, he doesn't bat anywhere near as well as he should. That really hurts Australia because he is one of Australia's best batsmen. I would be thinking very seriously about playing Shane Watson where he plays the best, which is opening the batting.
"I think he's going to open with Warner, or he's going to open with Cowan or Rogers. The problem with opening with Warner is then you haven't really got the explosive player to play down the order at five or six. I wouldn't be surprised if they open with Watson and someone like Cowan or Rogers - I think they'll be vying for one spot, I don't think both of them can play, they're too similar in the way they play - and I think Dave Warner is a chance of batting down the order, he may bat at five or six."
Although Cowan and Warner have been together at the top of the order for 18 months, the possibility of a change has rekindled memories of the 1993 Ashes tour, when Matthew Hayden and Michael Slater were competing to become Taylor's new opening partner. Slater averaged 80.60 in the five first-class tour matches before the first Test compared to Hayden's 35.85 and made the Test spot his own. Taylor believes a similar battle could take place this year.
"I think they are going to be absolute trial games for the Australian side," he said of the tour matches. "They won't be just there for a bit of match practice. I think they'll be trying to work out what is the best order for this Australian side. I think Shane Watson creates the biggest question mark for the Australian side because I think on his day he is behind Michael Clarke as our best player, but Australia have to get the most out of him in this series.
"He's no longer the vice-captain of the side so he really only has to worry about batting, bowling and fielding. That's probably not a bad thing. I reckon the Australian hierarchy might me saying that to him, just get out there and particularly make some runs. I think Australia have got the quicks to get some wickets to win Test matches.
"Even though Shane Watson's bowling certainly is handy, it's not what they need mostly out of him. They need runs out of Shane Watson. They need probably two players to make 500 runs in this series and I think Shane Watson can do that job. But I'm not sure he can do it batting at four or five or six when he's also bowling."
Brad Haddin is likely to slot in at No.7, although he could also play in the top six, and his reinstatement as wicketkeeper and vice-captain at the age of 35 has raised questions about the lack of leadership options behind Clarke. Taylor said he believed all sports were struggling to develop leaders in the modern era, given the individual focus that players these days inclined towards.
"I'm not sure [the Test captaincy] has the same lustre these days because the money is so good in the game regardless," he said. "Players are more focused on themselves and playing for their future, playing as a career. I think sometimes they don't look at leadership like they used to 10 or 15 years ago."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here