Match Analysis

Warner's lack of red-ball prep shows in waning Test returns

Australia's all-format opener hasn't had a lot of chances to work on his long-form game and it hurt him in Perth

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Two days out from the first Test of the summer, Usman Khawaja gave a sharp retort to a journalist when asked why, as Australia's incumbent Test opener, he had been batting No. 4 for Queensland in each of his five Sheffield Shield innings this year.
"Does it really matter?" Khawaja said. "David Warner hasn't played a red-ball game in six months. Why isn't anyone talking about that?"
Khawaja's point was emphasized on the opening day of the opening Test of the summer as he and Marnus Labuschagne, with four first-class matches each under their belts this season, set Australia on their way to a mammoth first-innings total and nullified the West Indies pace attack on a pitch that offered more than their meagre returns suggested.
Labuschagne's love affair with Perth Stadium continued, and his love of Australian conditions remains unabated, as he carved out his second century at the venue and his seventh at home overall. Khawaja didn't quite cash in in the same manner, but still made a superb 65 that helped guide Australia to a position of strength by mid-afternoon on the opening day and laid a platform that allowed Steven Smith to prosper with a fluent, unbeaten half-century of his own.
It was Warner who was the only top-order batter to miss out, having not played a red-ball game since his last Test in July, and having criss-crossed the country over the last three months playing eight ODIs and eight T20Is across five different series and a World Cup.
Warner's dismissal, chopping Jayden Seales on for 5 off just his 16th ball in the fourth over of the match, was telling. He tried to thrash a full-blooded cover drive. It was full and wide, but it wasn't a half-volley. Another day the inside edge bounces wide of the stumps and he picks up a single. But today it flattened his leg stump.
He could curse his luck. But he broke the golden rule of batting on both the Perth Stadium and WACA pitches, to put your cover drive away early and wait for your opportunities.
Khawaja put on a masterclass in patience, denying the West Indies' five slip fielders over and over and over again. He wouldn't unfurl a cover drive off the quicks until his 125th delivery. Labuschagne was more eager and the shot was fruitful for him. But even he didn't play one until his 48th ball.
It serves to prove the difficulty of being an all-format batter in 2022. Labuschagne and Khawaja looked exceptionally comfortable on a pitch with 10mm of grass on it and some two-paced bounce, having batted on some green monsters in Sheffield Shield cricket this season. Labuschagne made a Shield century in his first innings of the summer but had failed dismally in the other three matches, two of which were completed inside three days including one at the WACA. But the lessons of those matches were evident in his innings. He was disciplined outside his off stump. He defended watchfully off both feet. He waited for his opponents to err and pounced.
"Some of the wickets we've played on were a bit tougher," Labuschagne said. "I think whenever you're scoring runs leading up in that format, it gives you confidence. You trust your game just because you've got runs behind you. And sometimes when you haven't played for a while, you start searching for a bit more and you get away from the process a little bit."
He did enjoy a lot of luck that Warner may bemoan. He was beaten a fair bit. He edged three times through the slip cordon with one a catchable chance to Jason Holder. He also could have easily holed out to deep point late in the day. But none were the result of attempting a booming cover drive before he reached 10.
Khawaja's innings was almost faultless. Coming off three half-centuries in the Shield where he had faced more than 150 balls in two of them, he scarcely played a false stroke, defending under his eyes, leaving decisively and playing with soft hands when the rare ball caught his edge. He attacked the spinner and drove the quicks straight. It was a shock when he was dismissed, edging a superb away swinger from Kyle Mayers having not done much wrong trying to defend his off stump from the angle from around the wicket.
Smith too looked incredibly comfortable, picking up from where he left off in the ODI series having refined his revamped technique while on the sidelines during the T20 World Cup.
But while Warner too was in sublime touch during the ODI series, his white-ball game is no longer translating to Test cricket. Cameron Green spoke this week of the difficulty of reining it in from T20 to Test cricket, having to get used to the rhythm of leaving the ball again and bringing your contact point further under your eyes.
Warner hasn't been able to do that with consistency for the last two years. Since his gluttonous Test summer of 2019-20, where incidentally he started the season with an outstanding Shield century at the Gabba, he has averaged just 27.52 with just four half-centuries in 22 innings.
He has not had a lead-in first-class game prior to a Test series in that time. The closest he got was a 14-day training period, while in quarantine last summer ahead of the Ashes where he could do exclusively red-ball preparation after the T20 World Cup. Coincidentally or otherwise, it led to his best two Test innings in the last two years, scoring 94 and 95 in Brisbane and Adelaide.
Warner had just eight days and three red-ball net sessions in Perth after scoring an ODI century in Melbourne last week. Unusually, he spent the last of those sessions batting in sunglasses at Perth Stadium on Tuesday. Warner often doesn't hit the day before white-ball games but will almost always hit the day before a Test match. It was also noticeable how much more Warner was searching to hit the ball compared to Labuschagne and Smith in the nets alongside.
Labuschagne noted that Warner's challenge of going from white-ball cricket to red-ball was the equivalent of his going the other way.
"I grew up on red-ball cricket," Labuschagne said. "I think that comes more naturally to me is going back to my roots as such.
"I think that is probably an example for someone like Davey who probably came through the white-ball system, he tends to hit a lot more coming into red-ball cricket because he's got to go the other way. Where I probably go the other way and in white-ball cricket I'm hitting to try and actually get my weight into the ball a bit more. I'm working on my game a little bit trying to find out how I can get a little bit more power in front of the wicket in white-ball cricket.
"I think for different people it's certainly a different type of preparation, depending on who you are."
The fortunes of both men on day one, and over the past two years, only further highlight what Khawaja noted.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo