JavaScript disabled. Please enable JavaScript to use My News, My Clippings, My Comments and user settings.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

If you have trouble accessing our login form below, you can go to our login page.

Order of the day to fill batting abyss

Date

Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

View more articles from Greg Baum

Email Greg

Those who have been tried at No. 3.

Those who have been tried at No. 3.

Ricky Ponting bestrode Australian cricket from the front, which is far less elegant phraseology than his footwork ever was. For 10 years, he batted exclusively at No. 3 and averaged more than 56. As is so often the case, only after he abdicated the position was it possible to see the immensity of that feat in perspective.

The handover was unceremonious, even accidental. In mid-2011, Australia was in Sri Lanka, licking the wounds of the previous summer's Ashes debacle. Michael Clarke had replaced Ponting as captain, though Ponting was retained at No. 3 for the first Test.

But when Ponting returned to Australia for the birth of his daughter, Shaun Marsh stepped in at first drop for the second Test, and promptly made a debut century. When Ponting rejoined for the third Test, it was down the order a notch. He would never make another run at No. 3.

Seemingly, Marsh had opened a door, but it was to an abyss. In two years and 26 Tests since, eight men have appeared at No. 3, collectively averaging a meagre 22. Not one has made a century. But they have made nine ducks, including three in one series for Marsh, and one for Clarke, in his only captain's innings at No. 3.

The pattern of Australia's capitulation in England sadly was all too predictable. The bowlers have been honourable, not conceding more than 375 in an innings. But however few England makes, Australia always was and is liable to make fewer.

Australia's most brittle batting order in long memory is full of holes, and the most gaping is at No. 3.

In the Clarke era, the openers have made sporadic runs, Clarke has been prolific in the middle order and has insulated No.6; Mike Hussey's last four Test centuries were made from platforms of 4-325, 4-299, 4-210 and 4-198.

But No. 3 remains a black hole. In this series, it was occupied in the first Test by Ed Cowan, and since by Usman Khawaja. Apart from Khawaja's 54 on the last day at Lord's, in a cause already long lost, the highest score is 24. The ill-starred Khawaja looks to be playing himself out of the team again, though now that the Titanic is fatally holed, there is no point in shuffling the deck chairs again at the Oval. Khawaja, now sans lifejacket, must sink or swim.

In cricket's schema, No.3 is not the premier's pivot it was when, say, Ian Chappell bristled there for Australia, up for the contest whether the scoreboard showed 1-0 or 1-150, with the tools and the craftsmanship either to repair a poor start or consolidate a flyer. Now, a team's best batsman melds into the middle order. Steve Waugh rarely batted at No. 3, Sachin Tendulkar never. Ponting's long vigil was a revisitation.

But this is not to pine for Ponting, nor Simon Katich. Nor is it to prevail on Clarke, temperamentally a natural in the middle order, also an unbroken part that does not need fixing. But it is to expect more at first drop than a figure that looks more like a bowling than batting average.

The selectors do not now have the luxury, if they ever did, of persevering faithfully with an underperformer while others pack up the runs around him. Nor can they do deals with themselves, as they appeared to when hiding Phil Hughes from South Africa last summer. They can only trial the talent in turn, until one seizes his chance. No one expects a bestriding Ponting; someone to straddle the crease for more than an hour will do for a start.

Related Coverage

Featured advertisers