Australia began the Ashes with an opener,Ed Cowan,batting at number three and another,Phil Hughes,at six. After one Test in that unfamiliar role,Cowan was discarded. Hughes,who made an unbeaten 81 in the first innings,found himself batting at number four in the next Test. He failed twice and found himself out of the side.
Hughess replacement was David Warner,another batsman used to going in at 0/0 and facing the new ball. When Warner made his first appearance in the series,Australia were four wickets down. He went back to opening in his next innings and has remained there since. In doing so,he has swapped places in the order with Shane Watson whom coach Darren Lehmann had anointed pre-series as half of his preferred opening pair.
Before the Ashes began,it was hard to pick Australias best top six. This was partly because their batsmen were in a collective form slump,and partly because they had so few specialist middle-order batsmen in their squad. They have plenty of openers though: Watson,Warner,Hughes,Cowan and Chris Rogers.
Australias batting has been in transition ever since the end of the 2006-07 Ashes,when Justin Langer retired. Not long after,they lost Matthew Hayden as well. That left them needing to replace the second-most prolific opening partnership in Test history.
And so,of the nine specialist batsmen who made their debuts for Australia since Langers retirement,five were openers. None of them became a permanent fixture,but all of them showed enough promise to remain in and around the team. As a result,when a middle-order vacancy opened up,one of them moved down the XI to fill it. Batsmen who had auditioned for the Hayden and Langer roles now had to play Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey. In some cases,they had to play Ponting in one Test and Hussey in another.
This template,with little logic in the first place and no continuity thereafter,was bound to fail. After four Tests,Australia are 3-0 down. They could have been 2-1 up had the weather stayed clear at Old Trafford,and if their batting had fired more consistently. But a batting unit cannot fire consistently if batsmen are playing out of position and are constantly moving up and down the order.
(Karthik is a principal correspondent based in New Delhi.)
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