In the wake of a disastrous tour of India and after the appointment of a new coach, Darren Lehmann, Australia have looked to re-think their batting strategy ahead of the Ashes in England.
The series starts on Wednesday at Trent Bridge and Australia’s top order is set to have a very different look to the side that took on India in the fourth Test in Delhi at the end of March.
From the moment he took over as coach a fortnight ago, Lehmann has made it clear that Shane Watson will return to the top of the order. Watson was thrust into an unfamiliar opening role four years ago against England and enjoyed a good deal of success in the position with Simon Katich in the two years that followed.
Since then, injury has seen him in and out of the side and often distracted by poor form, the vice-captaincy and being moved up and down the order. Brad Haddin has taken over as Michael Clarke’s deputy and Watson is free to move to the top of the order.
Lehmann has given little else away, but we know that Watson will be joined at the top of the order by Middlesex captain Chris Rogers. Rogers has just one cap, against India more than five years ago, but could be Australia’s most dangerous batsman due to his incredible knowledge of English conditions, after stints with five counties.
He should be a mature foil for some of Watson’s more outlandish stroke-making and can be expected to quietly accumulate runs on grounds that he is so familiar with.
The opening pair got off to an excellent start in the final warm-up game against Worcester last week, putting on a stand of 170, as Watson carved 109 and Rogers put together a more considered 75.
It will be Rogers role to help Watson, who has just two Test centuries in 41 matches, to convert his starts into big scores. This shouldn’t be a problem for the 35-year-old Rogers, who already has 60 first class centuries to his name.
Beyond the opening pair, the make-up of Australia’s batting line-up for the first Test is far from clear. At a press conference on Monday morning, vice-captain Haddin kept his cards close to his chest, saying that the only positions that he knew for certain were the openers, and his own position as wicket-keeper batsman at number seven. So, that leaves numbers three, four, five and six to fill.
One of these positions will be filled by captain and star batsman Michael Clarke, who enjoyed a simply sparkling 2012, amassing 1,595 runs in 18 innings, including four scores of more than 200. It is likely that he will bat as the fulcrum at number four. However, worries about the bad back that kept him out of the final Test in India, may seem him drop to number five.
It is extremely unlikely that David Warner will return immediately from his well-documented suspension for punching England wunderkind Joe Root on a night out in Birmingham. He has played no competitive cricket at all since the Champions Trophy group stages and no red ball cricket since March. The first Test is likely to come too soon for the young tyro.
That leaves three spots, and the men fighting for them are regular openers Phil Hughes and Ed Cowan, and middle order men Usman Khawaja and Steve Smith, a late call-up.
In India, Cowan did little to deserve to be dropped and is likely to bat at number three after appearing there against Worcestershire last week. He accumulated a steady 58 but then ran out his captain, and then himself. These run outs may have been telling as they show how little some of these batsmen have played together and how little time they have had to gel. Lehmann and batting coach Michael Di Venuto will no doubt be alert to this problem, however.
Khawaja and Smith are likely to fill positions five and six, with Hughes the man to miss out. He struggled badly in India (as he did last time out in England) but looks in good nick on this tour. However, his propensity to slash wildly at anything wide may lead to him being viewed as something of a liability.
Khawaja has a far tidier technique and a normally solid temperament. He did himself few favours in India by being involved in the homework-gate scandal and had to settle for diligently carrying drinks all winter. He enjoyed a stint at Derbyshire last year that may see him force his way into the side this time round. Smith looks a much-improved player after an inauspicious start to his international career a couple of years ago.
He has worked hard and did well in India and impressed as vice-captain of Australia A. His leg-spin will be handy too, especially as it looks unlikely that the Aussies will plump for their specialist tweaker Nathan Lyon.
So that is 1-6, and with Haddin guaranteed ahead of Matthew Wade at seven (a call that seemed controversial two months ago), perhaps the Australians won’t be as bad as we have all expected. A great deal depends on the experience of the openers and Michael Clarke’s back staying OK. If he relapses, the whole order suddenly looks very crumbly.
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