x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Australia's batting order woes part of their Ashes issues

The team's problems are not being helped by continually tinkering with the make up of their top six, writes Graham Caygill.

Phillip Hughes has been moved up and down Australia's batting line-up this year.
Phillip Hughes has been moved up and down Australia's batting line-up this year.

Life as an Australia cricket fan is not a pleasant experience right now.

Losing is something they had not known much about, until recent years. But it has been a particularly bitter pill to swallow to not only lose to England, but be thrashed by them in the second Test at Lord's last month.

Australia and their fans are a very proud bunch, and rightly so; their history and the teams who represented them between 1989 and 2007 were some of the greatest in the history of the sport.

So the performance at Lord's was extremely hard to take, as they lost by 347 runs against a team whose batting line-up has yet to really fire and has relied on great innings by Ian Bell and Joe Root to get them to respectable scores.

Australia's main problems have been with the bat.

Yes, Australia have lacked the edge with the ball to follow up on good starts that have had England in trouble, but Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc and the now-injured James Pattinson have all performed with heart and spirit.

The problem? The top six are not performing, and it does not help that the Australia selectors appear to have no idea what their best top six is.

Consistency has been absent in selecting who bats where in the top six, and fans could see a fifth successive change in the order today if David Warner is rushed back into the team, after playing for Australia A in Zimbabwe.

There is some mitigation to this approach: Australia changed coaches before the series, with Darren Lehmann replacing Mickey Arthur, and it clearly is not the squad Lehmann would have picked if he had been in the position earlier.

But Australia appear to have a flexible attitude to who bats where, with players getting far too much say in batting where they want to, rather than where is best for the team. If reports in the Australia media are correct,Shane Watson is opening largely because he wants to.

The injury-prone all-rounder's Test record has had plenty of coverage in the past, with two hundreds in 43 Tests a disappointing return for a man with talent.

His party trick in the series thus far has been to come in against the new ball, hit a couple of boundaries and then the inevitable loss in concentration comes and he gives the England slip cordon catching practice.

He took Warner's opener spot for the series, having batted in the middle-order, with little success, in the 4-0 whitewash loss in India.

It is unclear where Warner fitted into Lehmann's plans, but his moment of indiscipline in striking Root on a night out in Birmingham in June ensured he was not seriously considered for the first Test and served penance with the A team before being recalled.

Ed Cowan, who had a solid, if unspectacular, time in India found himself deposed in a like-for-like selection at the expense of Chris Rogers, who is 35 and had played only one Test match before this summer.

Rogers produced a half-century at Trent Bridge, but it seemed shortsighted to drop Cowan from a role in which he had performed reasonably and had been the team's second-top scorer in India.

Cowan moved to No 3 for the first Test, in a role he was clearly not comfortable with, and proceeded to get out to his first ball in the first innings and then played a horrendous stroke in the last over before tea to give the part-time bowler Root his first Test wicket.

He was ditched for Lord's in favour of Usman Khawaja, whose defiant 54 in the second innings was one of the few positives for Australia. Presumably, he will now get a run in the position.

Michael Clarke, the captain, began the series in what should be his best position, No 4, traditionally the spot in the order where a team's best batsman plays.

But, bizarrely, when Australia were struggling at Lord's at 50 for two, it was Phillip Hughes striding out to the middle and not Clarke, who instead came in at No 5.

Clarke reportedly prefers batting at five, but as arguably his team's only outstanding batsman, he needs to come in higher up the order at four.

One position should not matter, in theory, but it is the message that it is giving out, too. Ask England who they would rather see coming out at the drop of the second wicket and the vote probably would go unanimously in the direction of Hughes.

Poor Hughes. He began life as an opener. That was not working for the selectors, so he became a No 3.

They did not fancy him there either so in this series he played the first Test at No 6, where he did a good job putting on a last-wicket stand, with Ashton Agar, of 163 that turned the match in Nottingham on its head.

Hughes failed in the second innings; so did a lot of batsmen. But it was baffling to see him suddenly at No 4 for the second Test, having batted so maturely at six, and with the tail in Nottingham.

He scored one in both innings at Lord's and his place is most at risk if changes are made today.

Steve Smith dropped from five to six in the line-up at Lord's and is an injury doubt with a bad back, but even if he is fit he will probably not have a clue where he is batting until he is given the nod to pad up.

Hughes, Smith and Cowan are all trying to establish themselves as Test players.

It is hard trying to find out if they are good enough to be Test players without having to change position every match.

There is no bizarre science to how cricket works: the team with the better-performing players will win nine times out of 10. England have the superior batsmen and bowlers, at present, but Australia can and should be making life harder for them.

They will hope to start doing that from today, beginning with getting their top six right, and then sticking to it.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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