Handy openers need to be hefty
Upon being chosen together to open the batting for Australia, David Warner and Ed Cowan were quickly dubbed, via the hackneyed parlance of the deadline journalist, the odd couple. Five Tests and one innings in, and the truth is Warner and Cowan have indeed made a quite odd start to their international union. There has been one mighty and match-winning stand, against India in Perth, a small fleet of handy starts, and a couple of all too brief ones.
So far, their collective return as a partnership has been satisfactory, buttressing the innings against early losses more often than not, and keeping the strokemakers Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey away from the potential swerve, seam and bounce of the new ball. However the problem mounting over the course of nine innings is the fact that the loss of one opener has invariably been followed by the exit of the other.
In Port-of-Spain, on a pitch that proved worthy of the mistrust built up among the visitors in the two days leading up to the second Test, Warner and Cowan added 53 before the former was confounded by Shane Shillingford's first over of sharp spin and snicked an unsure drive to slip. Warner's innings was less than fluent, punctuated by plenty of plays and misses and a few edges, while he evaded dismissal in the first over of the match due to an appeal for a catch withdrawn so quickly that the umpires were unable to consult TV replays that suggested he was lbw.
Cowan, by contrast, looked sure-footed and firm in his judgement of what to play and what to leave. Twice he arrowed pull shots through square leg, and after Warner's demise pinged one princely cover drive through the field. Yet he was not to make it to lunch, beaten for pace and line by the decidedly slippery Kemar Roach and given lbw. As befits a man who takes pride in knowing where his off stump is, Cowan queried whether or not he had been struck outside the line. But as in Sydney against Zaheer Khan at the beginning of the year, replays showed the call to be marginal, enough to uphold the umpire Marais Erasmus' original verdict.
A score of 65 for 2 was no disgrace on a surface as capricious as this one. Nevertheless, Australia's advance as an international side requires opening batsmen capable of more than handy starts, and both Warner and Cowan have matters they need to address in order to be more consistently capable of doing so. Personal chemistry is not one of them - they have developed a decent rapport together. Cowan responds to Warner's mix of brashness and humour off the field and a keen desire to succeed on it, while Warner has drawn strength from Cowan's life experience, technical acumen and awareness of the wider world.
Instead, Warner and Cowan have to look within themselves for answers to their problems. In Warner's case it is a weakness against decent spin bowling; in Cowan's, an inability thus far to clear his mind long enough to play the long innings he has shown himself capable of in first-class cricket. The answers to their questions may, in fact, be found in looking a little more at the ways of each other.
First, to Warner. Since beginning in Test matches against New Zealand in Brisbane last year, he has demonstrated a sound method against the new ball, interspersed with natural episodes of aggression that result either in boundaries, edges or a collective "oooh" from the opposition slips cordon. Most of the time, Warner's approach has been successful, harrying the bowlers into error while not giving them the impression that he may get out any ball. It reached its zenith in January at the WACA ground, where his sprint to a century with a star-burst of sixes would not have been possible without a handful of wonderfully crisp drives against Zaheer Khan with the new ball.
However the fading of the shine and the introduction of spin has commonly created problems for Warner, bound as he seems to avoid the more outlandish tactics he resorts to against slow bowling in Twenty20 matches. Opening the batting in T20s, Warner wrong-foots spin bowlers by switch-punching with tremendous power and timing. He has previously stated that he would be unlikely to do so in Tests. As it is, his batting against spin lacks conviction, and it did not take long for Shillingford to find a way past him in Trinidad - five balls in fact.
Warner could do worse than speak with Cowan about how he combated his own weakness against slow bowling while playing for New South Wales. Early on in his career, Cowan was left shotless and often hopeless against the off breaks of the onetime Australia Test spinner Dan Cullen, before finding a method that relied on close watching of the ball and the use of the sweep to break up a slow man's line and length. So accomplished at the switch-hit, Warner may find himself a quite natural exponent of the more orthodox swipe to midwicket.
Cowan, meanwhile, has added plenty to the Australian dressing room with his good humour and evenness of temper. As his state captain George Bailey has observed, Cowan thinks deeply about the game but does not allow that introspection to darken his mood around team-mates. That said, it is possible that the cerebral is impeding the instinctive when he bats. Cowan ascended to Australia's Test XI after a run of first-class centuries that demonstrated an uncluttered mind and a sensible approach. Yet his appearances for Australia so far have not allowed him to quite reach that zone.
Warner is a man of simpler pleasures, but had forged the right Test match approach with long hours in the nets, and the advice of luminaries including Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Virender Sehwag. Organised as he is, Cowan may need to go on a similar search between now and Australia's next Test assignment against South Africa. As contrasting batsmen and characters, Warner and Cowan are ideally suited to Australia's needs, but they must find a way to go from handy contributors to hefty ones.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here