For a fleeting moment, Tim Paine felt flattered when asked whether he would give himself a promotion up the beleaguered Australian batting order. It’s the batsman in him that lit up, for such a proposal is a clear appraisal of his batting form. But he soon wore the pragmatic garb of captaincy back, with a chuckle: “I certainly haven’t been setting the world on fire.” The scathing self-assessment was followed by a succinct defence of his underwhelming batsmen: “I need to cash in on my starts as well so I’m no different to the other guys in our top six, and I’ve just got to play my role.”
In the barest of sense, it was true. In his last six innings, he has gone past 20 five times, but never beyond 41. It’s the constant plight of a No. 7, unless he’s gifted with the stroke-making genius of an Adam Gilchrist, he ends up farming the lower order and fails to convert the starts, settling eventually for scores in the 30s and 40s. Paine clearly is no Gilchrist, closer to Brad Haddin without the snarling machismo. His first-class numbers aren’t suggestive of someone with exceptional batting potential either — he averages a shade under 30, with just one first-class hundred in 189 outings.
But it’s the circumstances that have warranted such a suggestion, or rather the calamitous form of his specialist batsmen. It’s not a superior streak of runs that could see him promoted, but rather the overwhelming ordinariness of his batsmen. Among them, Paine is the fourth highest run-getter, with only eight runs differentiating him and Marcus Harris, who sits second in the table. Besides, he has fared considerably better than Usman Khawaja, Peter Handscomb and Aaron Finch. The last of them, in fact, has scored fewer runs than Nathan Lyon, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc.
In a sense, Finch embodies all that’s flawed with Australian batting —a converted opener tied in knots against the new ball, confused and contriving to get out in different fashions. In Adelaide, he attempted an expansive cover drive straight up; in Melbourne, he tried a late cut. What’s stranger is that there’s someone more adept at opening than him, Khawaja, who averages 113 in four matches. If that’s not reason enough, he has looked the most comfortable among their top five in the last two Tests. It’s not a case of Khawaja being reluctant either. “Usman’s opening record in Test cricket is very good and he’s been on record saying he’s not too fussed where he bats, whether it’s Nos. 1 or 3, so his record’s great, if that’s the way we go, Usman will go out and give his all,” admitted Paine.
But a solitary change alone wouldn’t gloss over their batting vulnerabilities. If Khawaja moves up, Paine has to find an alternative No 3. Shaun Marsh, with his moodiness, isn’t the solution. Neither is the recalled Handscomb or Travis Head, who, despite heading the Aussie run-scoring chart, hasn’t exuded any confidence.
A radical option then, a whisper that’s gathering heft, is to install all-rounder Marnus Labuschagne straightaway at No. 3. A first-class average of 33.17 doesn’t breed confidence, but in his second Test, against Pakistan, he did impress with a 43 amidst floundering partners.
Anyway, he will be in the side as a leg-spinning all-rounder, and Paine raved about him. “Lots of chat, lots of energy, he doesn’t shut up, Marnus, but I think at the end of a long series his energy has been great, to have him around the group the last few days. His leg spin’s improved out of sight, and you’re almost leaning towards him at Test level now as a bit of an all-round option, which is a really good package for us,” he said.
Paine’s pains don’t end there — the middle order comprising Shaun Marsh, Handscomb and Head looks equally pregnable. Handscomb’s footwork had been a mess; Head’s been lucky and Marsh, as he always has been, could bust or blossom without any tangible indication. The solution, if any, looks short-fix than futuristic, especially with The Ashes winking at them down the year.
A similar batting line-up could be ruthlessly exposed in England. And Paine doesn’t have immediate answers, apart from trying to juggle with the limited resources at his disposal. “There’s always going to be a little bit of a balancing act. A lot of people who are critical of selection processes won’t like that, but they’re just the plain facts. That’s what it is, we want to pick the best team. You always got to have a little bit of an eye to the future and what’s coming up at the same time,” he said. But the more he has tried to untie the knots, the more knotty it has turned out to be. But then Paine has a one-stop solution for it: “Bringing back the world-class players back into the team.” It’s this hope that’s the opium of his captaincy. It also explains the direness of the situation.
Explained | Why Australia’s problems begin at No.3
The No.3 spot is probably the most pivotal in the batting line-up as it often lays the foundation for the innings. It is all the more hallowed in Australian cricket, being the position frequented by the likes of Don Bradman, the Chappell brothers, Ricky Ponting and, of late, Steve Smith. And it is this number that is behind the Aussies batting frailties this series. Neither team has had a particularly productive opening pair but while Cheteshwar Pujara has, more often than not, steadied the ship. His opposite number Usman Khawaja batted for almost a day and a half to draw a Test a few months ago, but against the Indian attack, he has looked inadequate. Not only has Pujara outscored him almost 2-to-1 (328 runs to 167), he has faced 885 balls in the first three Tests, against Khawaja’s 509. That’s a difference of almost 63 overs. With the No.3 batsman, Australia’s most experienced, not providing any solidity, the inexperienced players were always expected to flounder. There is hardly any alternatives, other than waiting for Smith’s suspension to end on March 29.