Most are agreed that this summer’s Test cricket asked more questions than it answered about the state of our national team, especially when we have all had one eye on the upcoming Ashes the entire time.
Be it through confounding selection decisions like the ‘Rob Quiney thrown to the wolves’ saga, the absurd rotation policy that saw the weakness of the NSP on full display when playing five bowlers in Sydney, or the trials and tribulations of Shane Watson, we are no closer to knowing what our best Test XI is right now, let alone in six months’ time.
But I’ve grappled with one theme more than any other over the course of the last few months – is Ed Cowan good enough for Test cricket? Does he ultimately have the class to succeed?
Depending on the day, or even the hour, my answer may change.
After seeing his first few innings at Test level and seeing the old-fashioned, ‘take the shine off the ball’ opening batsman he was, I remember thinking that with the apparent dearth of Test-quality batsmen in the country, if he could average 35 in his position we could view that as a success.
It was noted that his application and intensity between wickets made Bernard Tomic look like Lleyton Hewitt, but purely as a batsmen there seemed enough there to suggest that he could make the grade.
In fact, watching poor old Ed get run out twice this summer, it struck me that he was cricket’s version of AFL’s intellectual ruckman Will Minson, who was once called “the dumbest smart bloke in football” by his former coach Rodney Eade.
Looking at Cowan’s six Tests over 2012/13, his supporters will point to one century, two fifty’s and 364 runs at 36.4 as not so bad facing the new ball, especially when the hundred at the Gabba was against the mighty South African attack.
Detractors will say that Steyn and Philander were mere shadows of themselves in Brisbane, and four scores of 10 or less from six first innings isn’t good enough at the highest level, and his performance against popgun Sri Lankan quicks didn’t pass muster.
Cowan’s last innings, a hard-fought 36 on a wearing pitch in Sydney, was in some ways a microcosm of his career.
Those in his corner saw a gritty performance of intestinal fortitude when the more glamorous trio of Warner, Hughes and Clarke fell by the wayside. They point to him top scoring for the innings, not falling until over 100 runs were on the board, and playing a leading hand in securing victory in a dangerous situation.
Those yet to be convinced about Cowan saw only stodginess at the crease which put pressure on the batsman at the other end to score, and struggles against spin that would bring about his regular downfall in India and against Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar in England.
Over the course of his Test career, one of his main problems is that he looks solid when ‘in,’ but then has a bad habit of soft, lazy dismissals. This isn’t a good sign for a player who has got to where he is due to concentration and discipline.
The feeling is that he doesn’t quite capitalise, failing too often to make hay under the shining sun.
To add a bit of spice to the mix, the whisper has Shane Watson approaching selectors with the intent of becoming an opening batsman again, happy to push his bowling duties aside.
Watson, most people don’t need reminding, had great success as an opener at test level. With most of his appearances occurring overseas, he provided a consistent platform against some renowned bowling line-ups, scoring some 1878 runs at 43.7, including his only two centuries.
And his record as an opener in India, where Australia embarks on a four test series next month? 271 runs from four innings at 67.75, including a hundred and two half-centuries.
So Shane Watson is certainly putting his hand up at the right time, or at the very least, the right time for Shane Watson.
So, where do I stand on the Ed Cowan conundrum? This is where I have contradictory thoughts.
As the incumbent test opener, based on what Ed Cowan has done to date, I’d like to see more of him, and think he should be allowed to hold his spot through India and England.
Yet, if I was selecting the side from scratch, he wouldn’t be in it, and Watson would take his place.
Has Cowan under-performed to the extent that he should be dropped? No, I don’t believe so.
Is he a better batsman than Shane Watson, who is now his challenger for the role? Again, I’d have so say no, I don’t believe so.
It’s worth nothing that both are head cases in their own right and, one suspects, riddled with insecurity.
As we’ve seen when nearing Test hundreds, Watson has the mental strength of a yellow chick pea, and is a bloke who needs ‘a few days’ to get his head around batting at four. I say, what’s to get your head around? Simply strap the pads on when the first wicket falls, and walk out to the middle with bat in hand once the second bloke is out.
Cowan, as a man with a more cerebral take on cricket than most, is a renowned over-thinker and over-analyzer of his game. You can almost see the mechanics of his mind driving his inner turmoil when dismissed by his own hand.
Is there room for both in our Test side going forward? It appears not.
As he seems one of the most likeable guys in cricket, I’m on Cowan’s side whenever he walks to the crease, and I sincerely hope he does well for his own sake.
But if the selectors opt to go down a different path, I can see where they’re coming from too.
Fifteen months ago, when thinking about who the best pure batsman in the country was, I argued the case for Shane Watson.
Michael Clarke has clearly taken that mantle, yet a Watson that is fit, confident and in-form provides an air of stability at the top of the order that is beyond even our captain, and is also, I fear, beyond that of Ed Cowan.