The Ashes 2013: Australia preview – Third Test, Old Trafford

A dejected Michael Clarke during the second test

A dejected Michael Clarke during the second test

Distorted, decapitated, defunct – Australia have already been  written off by novices and experts alike, all over the world. The seasoned cricketing heart would implore watchers to be patient and be tempted to cite the old “cricket is a funny game” parable, but the truth of the situation is that the Australian team is only sinking deeper in the shifting sand with every match.

When Siddle took a five-wicket haul on the first afternoon of the series, he played into a pattern that has been prevalent since the Australian tour of India. The one that begins with a glimmer and the potential for something big, almost a miracle, but is invariably followed by a recoil. On that day, it was the top four batsmen who couldn’t see the team through to stumps. In the second test too, they had England begging for mercy after strong opening spells in both innings, only to give it all away; and in the most grotesque of fashions at that – dropped catches, poor referrals, and an uneasy level of dejectedness.

It’s a pattern that lost them important sessions on the tour to India. Time and again, their temperament was tested and time and again, they found themselves on the wrong end. The batting was especially guilty of this, allowing constant room for the question of whether Michael Hussey should really have retired. And there’s good cause for it –  since the beginning of 2011, only Clarke (62.3) and Hussey (54.6) average more than 40.

In the same period, Shane Watson averages a measly 25 (fifteen batsmen average more than him in this period); David Warner is the next best performer in the timeline, with three centuries and seven fifties but finds himself out of the squad at the periphery of a career that was past its prime a few years ago, in the form of Chris Rogers. Strong reminders that confusion reigns in the Aussie camp and more fuel to the opinion-mongers.

The unceremonious shuffling of the batting order to provide a featherbed for their overdependence on Michael Clarke has resulted in an imbalance of the highest magnitude. To think about it at this point would be further aggravating it and accepting that is the only way Lehmann and Clarke can make any amends – even if the return series at home is where it happens.

However, for practicality’s sake, it must be assumed that Australia will think forward – it’s a trait they will never lose, irrelevant of how many they do.

The first issue to address is the pair that takes on Anderson and Broad upfront. Chris Rogers’s patient approach and old-school technique have kept him at the crease for a total of five hours for the 89 runs he has scored. For his argument is the fact that he’s playing the new ball out every time he walks out to bat. But the very point of that comes into question when his modern-day star of a partner at the other end isn’t capitalizing on it. Besides, Khawaja is more than capable of doing the same at number three. What good is rearguard action if it isn’t followed by a siege?

Ed Cowan looks a good bet to be slotted right back into the position, as does David Warner; and although all indications point towards a Warner return, they’re fixedly inclined towards the middle order and Rogers might retain a place for one more match.

Shane Watson will stay on, but will be well aware that his margin for imprudent batting is as slender as his form. Phil Hughes is another batsman who will have similar thoughts, as was apparent from the way he looked in all innings barring the partnership with Agar. He might be the first casualty in that middle order and whether he is replaced by Warner or Wade, it’s a change that needs to be made. Steven Smith and Phil Hughes are utility players in Test cricket at best and playing them together isn’t doing a great deal of good. At best, there is room for one of them and if Smith lands his leg-breaks in the manner that he did in the Lord’s test, he could cause quite a bit of devastation. By that virtue, and the left-hander’s  potential woes on a turning track in Manchester, Smith earns his place.

Whether Warner is suited for the middle order is another debate. Ideally, a Warner assault at the top against England’s best bowler is a proposition that suits Australia dearly. In contrast to Watson’s ability against spin, a more successful composition would be if Watson were to be drafted into the middle order instead. Ideal hasn’t quite been the order of things for Australia so far but if there ever was a time to play fearlessly, it’s now. And hence, a specialist fifth bowler might not be so out of place.

Poor batting has meant little recovery time for the bowlers and Pattinson’s tour has already been put to an end because of it. Siddle and Harris aren’t getting any younger, and neither Agar nor Lyon – by any yardstick – are good enough to be lone spinners against this English line-up.

Shane Watson has to come good, sooner rather than later

Shane Watson has to come good, sooner rather than later

Bringing James Faulkner or Jackson Bird into the mix would provide Australia with an extra spinning option. Bird impressed in favourable conditions against Sussex in the tour game but Old Trafford might not be the same story. Even so, his uncanny resemblance of one Stuart Clark makes him a worthy case considering Australia’s struggle to keep England’s scoring rate under control. And would Agar benefit from a spin bowling partner? The answer is a resounding yes. He has been an intern without a mentor so far, and although neither of them showed great penetration against Sussex, the conditions are expected to favour them greatly in Old Trafford. Again, a long shot in the dark. But with the squad that has been given to him, there is only so much Clarke can do.

There are too many loose ends to fix at the moment and it is too late to try and fix them. The surest step towards a good performance, however, is to get rid of the bad components. In doing so, if Australia find themselves coasting alongside a breezy Michael Clarke hundred or tearing England’s bowling apart with Warner-esque disdain, the series might still have something in store for them. The onus, as is clear from the rest of this article, is on the batting. They owe something to the bowlers.

Winning the toss, for one, might help.

Injuries: James Pattinson out for the remainder of the series, Steve Smith with a slight back niggle that is expected to heal before the Test begins.

Positives: Pacers well-rested since previous game; two fifties for Cowan and a century for Smith against Sussex; Warner 193 against South Africa A.

Key personnel: Michael Clarke, Usman Khawaja, Ryan Harris, The spinners

Conditions: A new look Old Trafford with scenic infrastructure and a pitch that has been rotated about it’s axis, but is still expected to assist spin. Good reason to play two spinners and three quicks.

Watch our exclusive Ashes hangout, Tale Enders, below:

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