The top six conundrum

7 March 2013

Written by: Riley Beveridge

Australia’s batting capitulation on day four of the second test in Hyderabad highlighted the lack of conviction and mental strength that has plagued Australia’s top six in recent tests.

After going from a promising (and I use that word lightly) score of 2/56 overnight on day three, the Aussies lost eight wickets for just 56 runs to be bowled out for a measly total of 131 on Tuesday afternoon.

Earlier in the match, India’s first-drop combination of Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara used patience in amassing a 370-run partnership, a skill Australia’s top six – barring Michael Clarke – failed to recognise. The pair combined for just over 40 runs from their first 27 overs at the crease on day two, surviving the difficult early conditions before punishing Australia’s tired bowlers later in the day.

Conversely, Australia’s batsmen simply didn’t know what to do when faced with a similar task. Dave Warner, Phil Hughes and Shane Watson were all undone going for relatively impatient shots, while Ed Cowan never looked settled in either knock when opening the batting.

It’s a theme that has continually repeated itself over the course of this summer, and it’s a trend that calls for a drastic overhaul of Australia’s top six ahead of the Ashes later this year.

Taking into account the two test series’ against South Africa and Sri Lanka earlier last year, a case could be made that Cowan, Hughes and Watson – three of Australia’s top four – simply haven’t done enough to retain their places.

Cowan’s average this summer stands at just 33.79, while Hughes (28.67) and Watson (25.56) have been even worse.

Starting from the top, Cowan’s ability to open Australia’s batting has been poor recently, yet slightly misleading.

Although he’s only made 473 runs in his last eight tests and has just one international century to his name, he and Warner still have the highest opening batting partnership average in international cricket since 2010.

However better options could be available. Chris Rogers, at 35, may be a viable short-term choice ahead of the Ashes. He’s scored 591 runs at domestic level this year with an impressive average of 54.27, including three Sheffield Shield centuries.

Moving further down the order, I still believe Hughes at No.3 needs to be persisted with. Although he’s only scored 258 runs in five tests, his batting at one-day level was solid and it’s only silly mistakes, which can be eradicated, that continues to be his downfall. That and spin bowling.

Quite staggeringly, Hughes’s last 39 balls against spin bowling have resulted in 35 dot balls and four dismissals. I’m sure Graeme Swann is licking his lips.

While there are calls to push Clarke up the order to No.3, I think he should remain at No.5 for the time being. Many believe No.3 is the spot where your team’s best batsmen should position himself, yet I believe coming in at 3/40, as he did when he made an unbeaten 259 against South Africa earlier this summer, puts Clarke under more pressure than coming in at 1-for-not many.

Arguably Australia’s biggest batting concern comes in the form of Watson.

The 31-year-old’s public calls to open the batting have only heaped more pressure on the already under-fire Cowan, yet before Australia’s vice-captain can even think of requesting places in the top order, he must firstly prove himself as someone who can consistently make runs.

He’s made just one score over 50 in his last five tests and hasn’t made a test century since 2010 – 37 innings ago.

If he isn’t going to bowl due to debilitating injuries, what’s the use for him in the side? It’s time Australia’s selectors stop making choices based on a player’s reputation and start making decisions based on merit. Watson’s axing could be a statement of intent from John Inverarity and co.

Then we move to No.6 in the batting order. What No.6, you ask? That’s because we simply don’t have one.

It’s unfair to place unnecessary pressure on Matthew Wade’s shoulders in that position. He’s still trying to find his feet as Australia’s first-choice keeper and should be given patience in that role before anyone even thinks of asking him to save our innings when we’re 4/63 as we were on day one of the Hyderabad test.

Australia has options for our middle order, so I can’t understand why we’re not looking deeper for replacements, rather than just persist with the regular faces.

George Bailey and Adam Voges both made one-day centuries throughout the recent 50-over series’ against Sri Lanka and West Indies. They’re both mature and experienced and would fit in seamlessly at No.4 or No.6. Bailey is even our Twenty20 captain, and would add much-needed leadership to the middle order.

27-year-old Tasmanian Alex Doolan has made 531 runs at 48.27 this Sheffield Shield series, while Usman Khawaja (averaging 39.81) and Callum Ferguson (38.00) continue to scream out for selection.

Moises Henriques and Steve Smith are both in the squad as all-rounders and are considered options, yet they both have the same problem where I don’t think they do enough at the crease to be a batting all-rounder at No.6, and I don’t think they do enough with the ball to be a bowling all-rounder at No.8.

With that said, Henriques performed admirably when making knocks of 68 and 81* in his debut test.

Although there are options available, our test side is in disarray coming into an Ashes series of gargantuan importance.

Changes must be made, and alternatives must be looked at that are perhaps deeper than what’s scratching the surface of Australian domestic cricket.

After all, when you skim through the Sheffield Shield statistics for the 2012/13 season, you get two telling names hit you in the face – third-best batting average: Jason Krejza (remember him?) and second-highest run scorer: Ricky Ponting (I’m sure you remember him).

Riley Beveridge is a second-year Bachelor of Sports Journalism student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter: @RileyBev.