The Investec Ashes 2013 August 26, 2013

Australia's batting bingo must stop

By accident more than design, Australia's selectors eventually stumbled on a top five but there remain question marks heading into the return Ashes and an early decision needs to be made
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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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Sunil_Batra on September 2, 2013, 10:49 GMT

    @Edwards_Anderson well said mate

  • Edwards_Anderson on August 29, 2013, 8:19 GMT

    Amith i agree with you mate, it is important to expose all communities to develop a stronger cricketing nation and Khawaja was the person who took the main step in getting his baggy green on sheer talent and skill and i am predicting that he will be a long term test star for us. Also keep an eye out for Sandhu perhaps not in the coming season but in in 2-3 years time as he develops his game.

  • LewisDuckworth on August 28, 2013, 22:19 GMT

    @Buckers97: To answer your question about who had the better Shield seasons out of O'Keefe, Agar & Ahmed. I can tell you that Ahmed took 16 wickets in 3 matches (just over 5 wickets a match) with a strike rate of 55.5. Agar took 19 wickets in 5 matches (just under 4 wickets a match) with a strike rate of 57.2 and O'keefe took 24 wickets in 9 matches (less then 3 wickets a match) at a strike rate of 59.7.

    So although O'Keefe took the most wickets, he played 4 nearly double the matches of Agar and three times the matches of Ahmed. So to answer your question, Ahmed had the better season, followed by Agar and O'Keefe was the least impressive. He's well down the pecking order....

  • Chris_P on August 28, 2013, 21:23 GMT

    @ Steve Back, The trend with the young (next generation) batsmen averaging far less than 40 is probably a disturbing one for test cricket enthusiasts. I see it at grass-roots level where I play, not too many young batsmen playing top grade & those there play their shots early, it's the experienced guys who invariably grind out the big scores against a seemingly endless supply of quick bowlers trying to knock your head off. The Aussie fc scene has been trending downwards (batsmen wise) as I see very few who have the application to succeed at the highest level (( did post before he performed how much improved Smith was based on what I had seen in NSW). Hughes, believe it or not, seemingly cannot transfer his fc performances to tests, but has looked solid.

  • dummy4fb on August 28, 2013, 14:04 GMT

    @Jared Hansen: Yes but Haddin has maintained a 35 average over 50 Tests - not easy for a wicketkeeper batsman. Wade has performed inconsistently over a far smaller sample, has shown a tendency to get bogged down with his technique in ODI cricket, and is hopeless behind the stumps. I should add, for fairness, that sub-40 averages in first-class cricket are common here in the UK too, with several "Future England Prospects" / "Promising Talents" etc etc ad nauseam averaging around 35, like Alex Hales for instance. Little application at the crease, one fifty a while back and since when been a walking wicket to even part-time bowlers. Hopeless. We do have James Taylor, Jonny Bairstow, James Hildreth, Michael Carberry, Nic Compton, etc, but that's not a great sample to pick from.

  • dummy4fb on August 28, 2013, 14:00 GMT

    @ashik Khan: Henriques' form collapsed after his two half-centuries on debut. I would recommend him to play more first-class cricket.

    @Chris_P: Yes I was agreeing. I have never been impressed with the likes of Shaun Marsh or Rob Quiney. I know they are aged now but the likes of David Hussey and Simon Katich would perform far better for Australia than these average Shield batsmen. Those two experienced players should have about 20-30 Tests from now on in them if they got selected, so why not give them another go? I remember in 2009, after you guys thrashed us in the 4th Test, there was talk of recalling Mark Ramprakash (*laughs*!). Thankfully for Australia, Katich and Hussey are far mentally tougher and should perform well.

  • Gordo85 on August 28, 2013, 11:39 GMT

    The bingo can't stop as long as you are not performing. If you constantly keep on having players fails Test after Test of course you are going to have a bingo. And heck for a start the right players are not even really making the Test squad in all honesty.

  • espncricinfomobile on August 28, 2013, 11:19 GMT

    What happened to henriques? He was good playing in India?

  • Paul_JT on August 28, 2013, 10:27 GMT

    A lot of limited overs cricket before the next Test. Injury as much as performance in these may yet force the decision. Hughes should go back to domestic cricket and open with an eye to replacing Rogers after the Ashes. Though remiss to not mention Sam Robson of Middlesex. If selecting today, Bailey would be my choice at 5, Smith down to 6, with Johnson vying with Starc till Pattinson is fit.

  • dummy4fb on August 28, 2013, 9:19 GMT

    The Australian line-up in the fifth test was the one that should have more or less been persisted with from the start. Warner's suspension just before the start of a crucial series exposed the imbalance in the touring squad. One can't help but wonder that if Warner had played from the start, the batsmen in contention for the No. 6 spot would've been all left handed opening batsmen of sorts - Cowan, Huges, Khawaja, Wade. They needed a better plan than that, especially against someone like Swann who can be a threat at any time in any conditions. The likes of having Bailey, Voges or even Henriques would've lent a better balance to the squad.

    When the English tour down under, I would hope the squad consists of more middle order right handed batsmen. Having two left-armers and a leftie at six would play in Swann's hand, hence you would have to chose between Faulkner and Starc, and if the pitch is flat and conducive to batting, then an all-rounder like Henriques over Bailey / Voges.