In one of his first acts as Australia’s new cricket coach Darren Lehmann was applauded for returning Shane Watson to the top of the batting lineup. In doing so he ended months of speculation about Watson’s role in the team. He will open the batting alongside Chris Rogers and bowl a bit. Despite the fact that his front pad seemingly has a target painted on it for Jimmy Anderson and co, this was a moment of clarity from Lehman which needs to be pursued. A technical flaw should not warrant one of Australia’s most talented batsmen being dropped. It needs to be ironed out by the coaching staff.
More importantly there is also a distinct lack of a better option coming through Sheffield Shield state-level cricket in Australia. This is the fundamental problem in Australia’s test team at the moment and it is well documented. There simply is not a pool of test-quality talent, particularly in the batting department, coming through to national level. Pat Howard, Australia’s national team performance manager, has acknowledged as much today by mooting the concept of five-day first-class matches in the Sheffield Shield in a bid to replicate test conditions.
However recent failures are not reason enough to change the batting lineup with every test. The team that was put out at Lord’s was the best Australia have got. Lehmann and the selectors need to have the courage to stick with it, despite Ian Chappell’s assessment that this may well be the “worst batting side to leave Australia’s shores”. When you have a collection of young men who are evidently the best performers at first-class level but struggle at test level you are between the team rankings abyss and a hard place. There is no short-term fix. Until the Sheffield Shield is restructured and Australia’s domestic pitches provide a more balanced proving ground for young batsmen to ply their trade, the current crop are “it”. Consistency of selection will at least give these players time to adjust to and improve their performances within test level, the toughest form of the game. It will also give the coaching staff time to try and instil some patience, mongrel and concentration in the batting, all of which seem painfully absent at times for Australia. The trap of searching for instant gratification and quick results, all too symptomatic of modern life and the ever expanding commercial twenty-20 tournaments, will only prolong Australia’s current nadir.
Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja, Phil Hughes and Steven Smith all average above 40 at first class level. Of the pool of young batsmen, Khawaja looks the only player capable of settling into the much vaunted number three position. Smith is improving, has a great technique against spin and slots into the middle order nicely. Phil Hughes batted well at six and expressed his frustration with being moved up the batting order at Lord’s where he struggled. Warner may have slammed 193 in South Africa recently but his performance did not teach us anything. On benign wickets he can be dynamite and against bowlers of Anderson’s ilk in tricky conditions he looks as vulnerable as anyone. Warner also furthered his reputation for volatility by involving himself in some extracurriculars with the South Africa A wicket keeper Thami Tsolekile yesterday. The “kick up the bum” seems to be a recurring requirement for Warner despite his own admission that it was needed.
Smith and Hughes both scored valuable runs in Hove, though the latter’s runs were scratchy, and Khawaja’s 50 in the last test should earn him a recall. Michael Clarke is a class act, Brad Haddin averages only 34.69 in tests but brings a mature ferocity to the squad and Chris Rogers averages over 50 in first-class cricket. Rogers also looks well versed in batting in English conditions and should remain for the series even if only as a horses for courses selection. Australia should stick with their current top seven for the remainder of the series and see where the land lies before they fly home and prepare for the return series.
Like it or not, this is the best collection of batsmen Australia have and they need to be encouraged to stand tall with consistency of selection. Australia’s bowling poses far fewer questions. Despite a distinctly average performance in Hove Nathan Lyon should make his return as a more experienced spinner that the 19-year-old Ashton Agar. Jackson Bird looks the most capable of filling James Pattinson’s boots for the next test and his nagging line and length approach should ask plenty of questions of England. Siddle and Harris both bowled well at Lord’s and if they remain fit should be automatic selections for Manchester. It is difficult to see Australia winning a test right now but chopping and changing the starting lineup from one match to the next is hardly likely to help matters.