The Ashes: We know who the openers are but who bats number 3 for Australia?

Darren Lehmann is off and running as the coach of the Australian cricket team and has started his “reign” by confirming before the last trial game before the 1st Test that Shane Watson and Chris Rogers will be the opening for Australia come 10 July. That decision means that neither of the incumbents from the last test match played by Australia, David Warner and Ed Cowan, will be retaining their former positions in the team.

Obviously, the Australian cricket team is in a state of flux with the appointment of a new coach and the only secure places in the batting order seemingly the openers (now that their positions have been confirmed) and that of the captain, wherever he decides to bat. That means that the number 3 position (assuming M Clarke doesn’t bow to the pressure of I Chappell and bat there) is up for grabs for the following contenders: P Hughes (the incumbent), D Warner, E Cowan and U Khawaja.

I think it would be fair to say that the issue of “who bats number 3?” has oft been a vexed question in Australian cricket. Regularly the best batsman in the team has been tapped on the shoulder to be the number 3 batsman. In this regard one only needs to look at where players like Don Bradman, Ricky Ponting and Greg Chappell spent the bulk of their careers in the Australia team. The only time that that standard does not seem to hold true is when the captain is also the best batsman in the team and declines to bat in that position. The eras of Allan Border and Steve Waugh are instructive in that context.

So if the best batsman in the team is the captain and declines to bat at number 3 what style of batsman should be invested with the obligation of going in at the time the first wicket goes down. In my opinion one only needs to consider the efforts of David Boon to come to the conclusion that the style of batsman that ought be given the role of number 3, in the absence of the best batsman in the team (which is not to say that Boon at points was not that batsman but I think it would be fair to say that when he started batting at 3 he was not), is an established opener. With David Boon at number 3 from the 1989 Ashes tour (bearing in mind that he had batted at 3 before this point) Australia was blessed with a batsman who had spent some 20 test matches at the top of the order for almost 1,500 runs at an average of 36.85. More to the point, in Boon Australia possessed someone who was extremely experienced in going in against the new ball such that if he was in early he was used to it.

Now at this point I am sure many of you are saying: so? We have Phil Hughes batting at number 3 for Australia and he is a former opener for his country so surely, based on your own measure, Hughes must get the gig? Simply though I do not believe that Hughes is good enough form to play the role that D Boon did for Australia for all of those years post 1989 and particularly not so for an Ashes series. Hughes is, after all, in his third coming as an Australian test cricketer and in this coming has been pigeon holed as a number 3 batsman. In his 7 test matches back in the test team he has scored 380 runs in 13 innings at an average of 29.23 and is without a hundred in that span. That is simply not good enough and I am of the view that a change needs to be made for the first test.

So which of the other contenders should be selected in Hughes’ place (if that change is made). I suspect that Darren Lehmann would be looking to avoid having a change at number 3 that would see another player who has not been in the test team of recent times in the team so that, unfortunately, counts out Usman Khawaja. Whilst I think he is a player of the future he has not done enough in my view in the preliminary games to make his selection a foregone conclusion. With avoiding too much change in mind I think Lehmann will avoid using Khawaja at number 3 on 10 July.

That makes the race for the other position in the “engine room” (as D Boon used to call it) between Ed Cowan and David Warner. Have there been two more contrasting styles in Australian cricket than these two players? As good a starting point as any is to consider their records over the last 12 months:

Cowan Warner

All told then there is not much difference between the two records save that Warner has scored more fifties and Cowan occupies the crease longer. Who should Darren Lehmann go for then come 10 July? Importantly, both records are largely commensurate with that of David Boon before he became Australia’s first choice number 3 batsmen albeit the strike rate of Boon is closer to that of Cowan than that of Warner.

I think it is important here to also consider the preparation of both players in advance of this first test. I have written earlier about trials and tribulations of David Warner this year. In raw cricket terms his lead in to the first test has consisted of playing in the IPL 20/20 competition, 2 games in the Champions Trophy and then a long stint on the sidelines (and no doubt practicing in the nets) as he serves his suspension for punching Joe Root.

Conversely, Ed Cowan has spent the start of the English summer playing first class cricket for Nottinghamshire. By the end of Australia’s current trial game against Worcestershire he will have played 9 first class games in English conditions. His form for Nottinghamshire in his 7 games for them has been solid without being flashy scoring 478 runs at 43.45. A final key point on Cowan’s run in to the first test is, that if selected, he will be playing on his home ground (for Nottinghamshire) Trent Bridge.

A final consideration here is the style of players Cowan and Warner are: can anyone cogently argue that they would feel more comfortable with Warner walking out to the crease with the score on 1/0 than Ed Cowan? I, for one, shudder at the thought of Warner coming to the crease with the score one down for not many.

All of the foregoing considered then, it must be pretty obvious the way I am leaning. If Phil Hughes is not selected, as I believe he ought not be, then I am firmly of the view that Ed Cowan should be Australia’s number 3 for the first test at Trent Bridge. The statistics, the lead in form and the stylistic considerations all point that way.

Kurtley Beale: can I have his employment contract? Or that of any “sportstar” for that matter?

I have watched with a mix of astonishment and bemusement at the latest round of drama that seems to follow Australian Rugby Union player Kurtley Beale wherever he goes. For those who missed the drama of the week was Beale and is oft partner in crime, James O’Connor, being caught at a hamburger restaurant at 4am in the aftermath of the Melbourne Rebels’ defeat by the British and Irish Lions on Tuesday night. There was, apparently, no alcohol involved but they were still out eating a hamburger at 4am four days before they were due to play in a test match.

Kurtley Beales other indiscretions have been well documented but are worth rementioning: an assault charge that was settled at mediation, punching two of his (now former) teammates whilst on tour with his (also now former) Super Rugby franchise and then a breach of strict alcohol rules are the known behavioural issues that have faced Beale in the last 18 months. I am all for people being given second chances and now that Beale is seemingly on his fifth chance with the ARU I have had a moment of pause to consider this question: if Beale was employed by anyone other than the Australian Rugby Union would he still be employed?

I have already written in an earlier blog about the special treatment received (having both positive and negative impacts on them) in the context of poor behaviour. I have also written about the presumption of innocence and how important it is to remember that presumption in the context of the regular imbroglios sports stars seem to find themselves presently.

All that said, I think it is pretty obvious that the answer to the question posed in the preceding is a resounding “NO”. Let’s put Beale’s conduct in the context of someone who works in a professional context. I am happy to use myself as the guinea pig here: I work for a large firm in the city. My working hours are malleable but are generally between 7:45am and 6:30pm with a couple of days of work on weekends a month the norm. I have a team of 11 people that work for me and sit in a broader team of about 70 people. I am bound by a contract of employment with my employer that regulates my conduct during work hours and also, as is standard, requires me to follow the lawful directions of my employer.

Starting then with the obvious, I can never recall any occasion during my 15 year career in the work force where I have had moment to be out until 4am and then stop to grab a burger on a work night? Perhaps on the way to work before a large mediation or if I have a heap of work on maybe but not because I felt like going out and meeting up with some mates. How could any professional function in their job after, obviously, no sleep the night before.

The assault charge is a difficult one: I am fairly sure that my employer, or any employer in the professional work force, would be extremely displeased with an employee being charged with assault. I am unsure as to whether such a scenario would be grounds for immediate dismissal but I am pretty sure the said employee would be at least given a formal warning.

Then we turn to the combination of punching a fellow team mate and then ignoring a direction not to drink: can anyone think of any context in which an employee in a professional context would survive with his or her job intact after having a drunken brawl with two of his / her colleagues? I am pretty sure if I punched one of my fellow directors and one of the partners (given that G Delve was captain of the team at the time) on a boozy night out I would not be receiving just a warning: my employment would be terminated. If, however, I did survive and receive a warning on the condition that my employment would continue on the proviso that I not break the team rules again then surely breaking said rules would mean that I would be terminated and have to find a new job wouldn’t it? I have no doubt it would.

Sportstars are regularly crying that we (being the fans and the media) do not “understand how much pressure they are under”. Forgive me for not giving any sympathy: after all said sportstars are paid to play sport. The other regular refrain from sportstars and their apologists are that they are held to a higher standard because of the “celebrity” and that is unfair. With all due respect to those who push that argument: how can you say that when, in fact, it would appear based the available evidence that sportstars are held to a lower standard by their employers than anyone else who had a professional job in this country?

My gripe here is not with Kurtley Beale and his mate O’Connor: I am not surprised that they were caught out (again). My gripe is with the spinelessness of their employers. Actually, it is worth noting that my gripe is not just with the ARU at this juncture because afterall we have, in recent times also had the displeasure of seeing the following conduct rewarded with continued employment (by the governing body of the game):

1. Semi-regular abuse of opposing players, abuse of journalists doing their job and punching an opposing player (David Warner); and
2. Complete and open disregard for the authority of one’s employer, failing to follow a direction not to drink alcohol before training and sending a photographic message to one’s coach of your contempt for him (Josh Dugan).

The governing bodies of the sports we love are doing themselves and those that they employ who do the right thing a disservice by not handling these matters like any other employer would. How will players who behave badly or, indeed, just stupidly ever learn their lesson if they are not punished as someone in everyday life would be? A semi-regular refrain from those in sport is that they just want to be treated like regular every day people but they can not have their metaphorical cake and eat it to; viz., if they want to be treated like everyone else they also must be treated like everyone else when it comes to their employment and NOT with the special treatment they seem to presently receive.

I am not talking about forcing people out of sport because they make a mistake here and I am a massive believer of second chances in life. Getting a second chance though comes with it learning from ones mistakes and I question how someone receiving the special treatment when it comes to appointment that sportstars do will ever learn from their mistakes? Getting caught out at 4am 4 days before a test match indicates that Kurtley Beale has not learned his lesson.

All that said: how good would it be to be on the same sort of contract that Beale and others must be on which entitles them to, seemingly, do whatever they want whenever they want without thought to the consequences? I wonder where I can get one of them?

The Warner Controversy: where to from here?

Cricket news in this part of the world, thankfully given England’s dismantling of the Black Caps at Lords, has been all about David Warner and his spat in social media with two of Australia’s most respected cricket journalists: Malcolm Conn and Robert Craddock. I do not intend to revisit what was said: if you are a cricket fan you have read the exchange. If you are a Warner apologist you have already congratulated him on “sticking it up the journos” (aside: my favourite reply was “what would they know, they have never walked in your shoes” … are you kidding: the bloke gets paid to play cricket something the mere mortals among us would do for free). If you are on the side of the journalists you are bemoaning Warner’s conduct and declaring his captaincy prospects dead and buried. Most have taken a side and the less said about that the better.

What is important now that #warnergate has happened is to consider what the next steps are and how cricket in this country gets back to focusing on the upcoming Ashes and the return of the Ashes urn to its rightful place of residence in Australia.

Tomorrow is an important start to that process as Warner faces a charge against Rule 6 of CAs Code of Behaviour. For the uninitiated, Rule 6 provides:

Players and officials must not at any time engage in behaviour unbecoming to a representative player or official that could (a) bring them or the game of cricket into disrepute or (b) be harmful to the interests of cricket…this rule applies at all times where the unbecoming behaviour involves the player being involved in public comment or comment to or in the media.

There are various punishments available to the CA Senior Code of Behaviour Commissioner, The Hon. Justice Gordon Lewis AM, who will hear the case from a fine through to a reprimand and ultimately a suspension.

It seems difficult to argue that the conduct of Warner, no matter what side of the fence I have alluded to above one sits, is not in breach of Rule 6. As a minimum, Warner’s conduct must have been conduct banned by Rule 6(b) inasmuch as it can not be in the interests of cricket for a current player to abuse two of the most senior journalists in the game for the having the temerity to have an opinion. The question therefore becomes one of penalty and what Warner can put to the Commissioner as a plea in mitigation.

Herein, I think, lies a major problem for Warner. He has, despite his relative lack of time in the top flight of the game (19 test matches), been involved in a series of unseemly on field incidents of what could be best be described as sledging but really, even from a one eyed Australian fan, was tantamount to abuse. The most obvious of such incidents have occurred against India in both of the most recent home and away series. Even in a losing, Warner’s approach to relations with players from opponent teams seems to be “abuse first and ask questions later”.

I know regular readers of this blog will say that I have prejudged Warner here and that my general lack of, for want of a better term, endearment for the play of Warner is colouring my judgment here. Frankly, it may well be the case that I am harder on Warner than I would be on a player that I actually enjoyed watching play the game. I know this is incongruous given the alleged entertainment value that Warner brings to the game BUT the fact is that the conduct of Warner on the field is a major part of why I do not like watching him play.

Now is an opportunity for Cricket Australia to give guidance to a young player who is arguably at a career crossroad: having gone from being considered to be a captain in waiting no less than 3 months all of a sudden that carrot seems to be gone. That fact added to a start of a career where the numbers (1263 runs in 19 tests at an average of less than 40 AND 1124 runs in 38 ODIs at an average of 30) do not match hype means that Cricket Australia must tread carefully. Equally, Warner’s conduct can not go unpunished: indeed the conduct of recent times, including the sledging noted above, is a major part of the make up of Warner, or his ego, that needs to be worked out of his game and needs to be worked out his game right now.

Whatever the penalty, and given the penalties recently handed out for failing to answer a questionnaire that penalty must involve a suspension, now has to be the time that someone like a Rod Marsh or Andy Bichel, both selectors and massively respected in the game, tell Warner to shut up and let his bat do the talking.

I, for one, will be watching the outcome of the hearing tomorrow with interest and, more particularly, be closely examining Warner’s response to see if once again his ego is his guide or he has taken a moment of pause and learned the error of his ways, at least in the short term.