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.

Cricket Australia announces 2012/13 contract list: an emphasis on test cricket apparently

Today Cricket Australia announced the list of centrally contracted players for the coming summber (2012/13).  The following are those who received contracts:

Michael Clarke, Patrick Cummins, Xavier Doherty, Brad Haddin, Ryan Harris, Ben Hilfenhaus, David Hussey, Mike Hussey, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson, Ricky Ponting, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Shane Watson.

The move to reduce the contracted player numbers to 17 players and to, based on the Argus Report, focus on test cricket is something I wholeheartedly support.  I am not sure however that the new contract list does that though.

The glaring inclusion in the list is that of Mitchell Johnson.  Based on form over at least the last 12 months of test cricket he has played and in his return to first class cricket after his toe injury he surely can not be Australia’s top 17 players available for test match selection.  On the assumption that our test team will only ever include 3 fast bowlers, I can not imagine that he is ahead of any of Cummins, Harris, Hilfenhaus, Pattinson, Siddle or Starc on form and, indeed, recent reputation.

I am also surprised that Doherty has received a contract.  Based on recent selections he is behind both Lyon and Beer in the spin bowling pecking order.  Indeed he has a bowler ahead of him based on test squad selections, in the form of Beer, who bowls in precisely the same fashion as he does.  This is a strange inclusion if test cricket is your focus.

I have made much on twitter about Cowan’s exclusion however I confess that I can see the logic in not including him based on his form to date.  Equally, I would have though that if Cricket Australia considers him important enough to the Australian set up to make him captain of the Australian A team touring England this winter, they really should have thought him within the core of Australian players who received a contract.   Could it be that the plan is for Watson to open with Warner in the Ashes?

I will be interested to see if David Hussey’s inclusion in the contract list means he is the next in line for a test match spot.  I would find it surprising if that is the case with calibre of young batsmen waiting in the wings.  Shaun Marsh seems to have done himself out of the running after his troubles in the Border-Gavasker Trophy.  That said, Peter Forrest has done everything asked of him and was in the squad for the Frank Worrell Trophy whilst Liam Davis, Tom Cooper and Bob Quiney set the Sheffield Shield alight last summer.  If our next test batsmen is supposed to come from the contract list then the selectors have missed the mark.

I should say here that I do not dispute that players in other forms of the game ought also be recognised and receive recompense for their services.  In the context however of an alleged focus on test cricket from Cricket Australia in these contracts then players who are specialist short form players seem out of place.

A final comment: the Sheffield Shield champions from last year have only managed to have one player considered in the top 17 players in the country.  If nothing else that much show that the days of the Sheffield Shield and form shown in domestic cricket being the principal basis for selection in Australia’s national squad are fast disappearing.