Australia's batting bingo must stop
It was fitting that Australia's series finished this way. Not so much the result, although the umpires playing the final role was especially apt, but the guessing game. Each time a wicket fell in Australia's second innings, the batting-order bingo barrel was cranked around and a name plucked out. Shane Watson promoted to open with David Warner, James Faulkner at No.3. Brad Haddin at No.4. Then Michael Clarke and Steven Smith. Then Ryan Harris and Mitchell Starc. No Chris Rogers. It was Australia's Ashes summed up in 20 overs.
Of course, this time there were discernible reasons. Quick runs were needed to allow Clarke to make the declaration he desired. But the overall effect was a reminder of the lack of clarity in Australia's batting line-up, a theme that began before Mickey Arthur was sacked and has not disappeared. It was notable that England, good enough and consistent enough to win 3-0, retained the same top six through every Test until The Oval; Australia's top six changed personnel and/or order every match.
When asked after the final match what had gone wrong for the Australians over the course of the series, Clarke singled out the batting and added that Australia's first-innings performances especially had been sub-standard. "In these conditions when the wickets deteriorate and the ball spins more, second innings are always difficult," he said. "But our first-innings batting needs to improve."
But the Australians actually held first-innings leads in four of the five Tests. Lord's aside, they were in every other match deep into its second half. More runs in the first innings would have strengthened their positions, certainly, but grabbing opportunities later in Tests is arguably more important. Australia passed 300 only twice in the series; England failed to reach it only twice in completed innings, yet 377 was their best. They were consistent and that was enough.
That they entered the series with a settled batting line-up certainly helped. By accident more than design, Australia's selectors eventually stumbled on a top five. It is not the top five they expected when they chose the squad, nor when the teams lined up at Trent Bridge. There is no Ed Cowan, no Phillip Hughes, no Usman Khawaja. Not every batsman has made an irresistible case but there seems little doubt that Rogers, Warner, Watson Clarke and Smith will line up at the Gabba in November.
But what of No.6? It is not a pivotal position in most Test teams, but Michael Hussey made himself invaluable there until his retirement in January. In a malfunctioning batting line-up with its best player at No.5, Hussey was the back-up, the preventer of top-order collapses flowing further. Since Hussey's departure, Australia have been uncertain how to fill the role. Is it the place for a batsman who can't fit elsewhere or for a wicketkeeper-batsman, which allows an extra bowler?
That Faulkner was picked at The Oval, where the intention was for Brad Haddin to bat at No.6, should not be taken as an indication of the balance Australia will choose at home. The coach, Darren Lehmann, said as much after the series when he declared that six batsmen would be needed in Australia, with Adelaide Oval perhaps the only venue where an extra bowler might be considered. Faulkner took six wickets on debut but he cannot squeeze ahead of any of the frontline fast men.
Certainly Faulkner was impressive on debut, in his attitude and his ability. He made 23 and 22, but in both innings was asked to throw the bat. His wickets largely came when England were batting with similar aggression. It's unlikely Faulkner will feature at the start of the home Ashes, but his entry to Test cricket has at least shown that he has the nerve, he can hold his own. But if Watson is fit to bowl, the balance of the team requires another batsman.
Problematically for the selectors, they might need to decide on their preference before the Sheffield Shield season begins. The one-day tour of India that runs from early October until the first week of November causes an issue not only in the preparation of the Test batsmen, but in others pressing their case. Should men like Clarke, Watson, Smith and Warner stay at home for some Shield-based Ashes preparation and a second-string side be sent to India, a Test batsman in waiting might be in that ODI group.
Unless that man is identified before the tour. There are two ways the selectors could go: an older, wiser batsman who could add to the side's experience and toughness, as Rogers has; or a younger player, a man who could be groomed in the less stressful No.6 position before potentially moving up the order in future. In neither case is it clear who would be chosen. Lehmann was handed a squad that had already been picked; at home, he will have a greater say in who he wants.
That Khawaja and Hughes were used and discarded during the Ashes does not augur well for them, but an extended run at No.6 would be preferable to the way either man has been treated so far in international cricket. Nic Maddinson is another option after his productive Australia A winter tours - he made centuries against Ireland and Gloucestershire and 88 and 90 against South Africa A - but his patience is a question mark.
Maddinson is also a left-hander and there seems a push in Australia's batting line-up for right-handers. Graeme Swann should be less of a threat in Australia than in England, but turning the ball away from left-handers he will still create problems. Arguments could be made for Alex Doolan or Joe Burns to slot in at No.6 but the pressure in a home Ashes would be intense. The selectors may opt for more experience.
Adam Voges, George Bailey, Shaun Marsh and Callum Ferguson might all be candidates. Voges and Bailey especially appear favourites of this selection panel. A left-field selection could be Andrew McDonald, who captained Australia A last year and may well have toured India had he not needed hamstring surgery. As a batting allrounder, McDonald is good enough to be a Test No.6, offers a canny bowling option and the desired experience. He has more first-class hundreds than Marsh or Ferguson.
The rest of the line-up seems more or less settled. Haddin was disappointing with the bat in England but provided the off-field experience and support to Clarke that was a key reason for his selection as vice-captain. His performance behind the stumps was mixed - at times his feet moved like Fred Astaire, at others like Andre the Giant - but he did enough to claim a world-record 29 dismissals for the series. It is likely he will be retained.
Ryan Harris was outstanding, as anticipated, and lasted four Tests, as nobody expected. He left the field late at The Oval with hamstring soreness but his injury was not believed to be serious. Together with any combination of Peter Siddle, Starc and James Pattinson, Harris forms a pace attack that constantly challenges and in Australia could be even better. Nathan Lyon, wrongly left out for Ashton Agar early in the series, should play at the Gabba but will face pressure from Fawad Ahmed.
It took until the fourth and fifth Tests, but eventually the Australians found centurions who weren't Clarke. Rogers at Chester-le-Street showed how to fight on a tough pitch, Watson and Smith both secured their positions with bold hundreds at The Oval, albeit in a dead rubber against a weakened attack. Both will be judged more on their work at home, but both have earned the right to be there. Warner made starts without going on.
There were enough signs from Australia to suggest that at home they will challenge England again. Whether they can win is another matter, for more pace in the pitches will suit James Anderson and Stuart Broad as much as it will Australia's bowlers. Countering them will require batting solidity and consistency, easier said than done. Choosing a settled batting line-up would be a good start, and a pleasant change. No more batting-order bingo.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here