With the Ashes less than three weeks away, plenty has been said and written about Australia’s top-six frailties and precious little of it has been positive.
A fit Michael Clarke is the only genuine certainty in the eyes of observers, both at home and abroad, meaning the issue for the captain and his co-selectors is not necessarily one of just identifying the best specialist batsmen available, but rather of how to concoct the most useful batting line-up from one down to eleven.
Australia has been unable to rely on its top order for some time now, and it ambitious to expect a drastic turnaround in the fortunes of Ed Cowan, David Warner, Phil Hughes, Shane Watson and co. now facing England’s formidable attack in their own backyard.
While Brad Haddin will, Chris Rogers should and Usman Khawaja might replace some of their out-of-form countrymen, can anything but mediocrity be hoped for no matter which combination those in charge come up with?
Perhaps the hidden key is to focus on what the country is producing at the moment – namely, world-class bowlers who just happen to be above average with the bat in hand as well.
It has become more than an occasional quirk to see bowlers finish Test series with higher batting averages than a number of the men for whom runs is their primary job description.
In the recent 4-0 humiliation in India, left-arm paceman Mitchell Starc ended the tour with the team’s third-highest average at 36. Save for one measly extra single in Mohali, he would have compiled only the second individual century for the tourists in eight innings.
Peter Siddle made two half-centuries – one more than Cowan, Hughes, Matthew Wade and Steve Smith, and two more than the struggling Watson.
James Pattinson enjoyed a superior average to Australia’s then vice-captain, while the Victorian tearaway provided only one run less per innings than Hughes. This was no fluke for Pattinson, who also completed the whitewash of Sri Lanka in the Australian summer with the second-highest average behind Clarke.
The point is certainly not to suggest Australia’s bowlers are more accomplished with the willow than their batting counterparts. Averages by nature even out over time and Starc, Siddle and Pattinson are no match for Hughes, Cowan and Watson.
However, what this trio and players such as James Faulkner, Ashton Agar and even Ryan Harris offer Australia is the potential to bat a long, yet effective, tail.
Faulkner appears as likely to muscle a fifty down the order as Cowan does to plod to one at the top. And his accurate left-arm seamers and cutters could prove every bit as handy against this opponent as New Zealand’s Trent Boult and Neil Wagner did recently.
Picking Agar ahead of Nathan Lyon would be a big call, but the teenager is bowling well and appears to possess composure.
Australia might be closer to taking a gamble on his variety than some people think, and his three well-made half-centuries in 14 first-class innings will not have harmed his chances one iota.
A lot of significance is often placed on the quality of a team’s number seven. His potential output is thought to represent the ‘depth’ or otherwise of the batting order.
But what value do you place on a competent seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven in comparison to a confidence-lacking extra specialist at number six, the wicket-keeper at number seven and a traditional rabble of bunnies to follow?
Doubtless late-order partnerships are set to play an important role in the Ashes. England’s best bowlers are no mugs with the bat.
Australia might do well to accept its batting flaws are somewhat irreversible and go for all-out attack in the bowling department along with an appropriate amount of trust in the sting of the tail.
A side consisting of Hughes, Watson, Khawaja, Clarke, Rogers, Haddin, Faulkner or Starc, Agar, Pattinson, Siddle and Harris offers unprecedented bowling depth and variety – including five fast bowlers – along with one of the most talented lower-order batting groups ever assembled.
Indeed Starc, Pattinson, Siddle and Harris have all walked to the crease for their country after six dismissals.
Is it risky? Yes. Is it unconventional? Yes.
Is it a bold attacking strategy that supports Australia’s recent strengths, accepts the weaknesses and puts England’s batsmen on notice? Absolutely.