Ashes 2013: Australia should not shuffle their batting order

Michael Clarke himself has not been able to settle into a particular batting position for Australia © Getty Images

By Sudatta Mukherjee

Since the retirement of Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey, the Australian team has gone about shuffling their batting order which has resulted in a line-up that has looked unsettled. They were awfully exposed in the first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge by England. They also had to thank their lower-order batsmen as they bailed them out in both innings.

In the first innings, after being precariously placed at 117 for nine, Phil Hughes and debutant Ashton Agar added a world-record final-wicket stand of 163. In the second essay, the last-wicket partnership added 65, which nearly won Australia the game. The Australians have some classy players — Shane Watson, Michael Clarke, Brad Haddin — and young guns in Usman Khawaja, Steven Smith, Hughes. Add Agar in the list if you may. It is an amalgam of experienced campaigners and young hopefuls. As a confidence-building exercise, the Australian team management needs to help its batsmen settle down in a particular slot, rather than shifting them up and down the order.

Ian Chappell mentioned after the Nottingham Test that Clarke should have promoted himself ahead of Cowan [at No 3] in the second innings, to keep the pressure on England. But Clarke’s preferred slot is No 5. He has scored 20 of his Test hundreds at No 5, at an average of 63.95. At No 4, his average drops to 21.51. Why mend when it’s not broken?

Coach Darren Lehmann prefers Watson opening the batting as does Watson himself. In the first Ashes Test, Watson opened with Chris Rogers, who has much experience playing in English conditions, thanks to his county stint with Middlesex.

As an opener, Watson has scored 1,937 runs from 47 innings at an average of 43.04. Both his Test centuries came in as an opener and 15 of his 19 half-centuries, have also come in that position. Clearly, Watson’s utility at the top cannot be denied. Rogers and Watson look the best opening combination for Australia at the moment. Besides, there are no serious contenders to fight for that place, with David Warner right now in Africa, playing for Australia A.

Ponting retired after the series against South Africa in 2012 and shortly after that Michael Hussey called it a day after the series against Sri Lanka. Hughes came in at No 3, a place — which had become Ponting’s own — and scored almost 372 runs from nine innings [three Tests against Sri Lanka and four Tests against India]. His highest at No 3 was 87 against Sri Lanka in the 3rd Test at Sydney.

Even though Hughes could come in handy as an opener (he scored hundreds in each innings against South Africa in that position on his maiden tour), his recent record and Ponting’s retirement have given him an opportunity to come in as a No 3 batsman.

Apart from Warner, Clarke and Cowan have come in at No 3. Clarke, in fact, has batted only once at No 3 where he was dismissed for a golden duck against India at Mohali.  With an average of 37.20 from seven Tests, Hughes quite deserves to get that slot.

Khawaja is another option as a No 3 batsman, but with Hughes playing well in that position it will be interesting for the selectors to see who they back. Khawaja could be made to settle down as the No 4 batsman. He has played as a No 3 batsman in eight innings and at No 6 in three innings. With Khawaja coming in at No 4, Clarke can bat at this favourite No 5 spot.

The Australian middle order comprises Smith and a seasoned campaigner in Haddin, whose numbers as a No 7 batsman makes for good reading. From 40 Tests (62 innings), he has scored 2,166 runs at an average of 40.11.

But what then about Smith? Smith has thrice come in at No 6. Even though his average as a No 5 batsman dominates over his No 6 average, no one can conclude a batsman’s abilities on the basis of just three Tests. With Hussey leaving the place vacant and Clarke reigning as a No 5 batsman, Smith has the option of coming in at No 6. In the first Ashes Test, Smith batted at No 5, with Clarke at No 4. Clarke failed to click. He scored a duck in the first innings and 23 runs in the second. If Australia wants to see the captain score more of those hundreds, he should remain in his comfort zone at No 5 only.

Smith, initially, was brought into the side for the Ashes to bat at No 6. Shuffling the batting line-up quite rightly didn’t help Australia. The one thing they can do is let experienced batsmen remain at the positions where they are best suited.  With Agar performing quite brilliantly with bat in the first Ashes Test, Australia can promote him at No 8 [which they are likely to do].

If stats matter at all, then Lehmann should stick to the basics and let the players play their natural game. Young batsmen like Hughes, Smith and Khawaja should be allowed to settle down. It would be interesting to see what the Australian management does when Warner returns.

(Sudatta Mukherjee is a reporter with CricketCountry. Other than writing on cricket, she spends penning random thoughts on her blog and produces weekly posts on new food joints at Whopping Weekends. She played Table Tennis for University of Calcutta. When she is not writing, you will catch her at a movie theatre or watching some English serial on her laptop. Her Twitter id is @blackrosegal)