Barring a major shock, Australia will keep faith with David Warner at the top of the order for the fourth Ashes Test in a week’s time.
And as much as it will grieve Australians to admit it, it’s the right decision.
Say what you will about Warner’s poor Test record over the last three and a half years, his abysmal match at Headingley the latest in a long line of failures, or his 17 dismissals at the hand of Stuart Broad that have reduced him to almost walking wicket status with two more matches to play for the series.
But to jettison him now would only be setting his replacement up to fail, whoever that might be.
Dropping a fresh face into the baptism of fire that is an Ashes series is a recipe for disaster, and the options available to replace Warner are the very definition of slim pickings.
Australia have two back-up openers on tour, with Marcus Harris in the squad for the third Test and Matt Renshaw released but remaining in England on standby. Neither of them are solutions to the Warner problem.
Harris may have been a reasonable proposition when he made two centuries and two 50s in nine innings for Glamorgan in April and May. But his last competitive match was now nearly two months ago, and with a horrible record in England – his average of 9.67 in three Tests in 2019 very nearly as miserable as Warner’s – he is no more likely to be able to outlast the home side’s bowlers, and Broad in particular, as the veteran whose style closely mirrors his.
Harris, in effect, has always been a lesser copy of Warner: a short, punchy left-hander with plenty of shots but without the discipline or immaculate eye of the Australian great. With an average of 25.29 after repeat chances at the level over nearly five years, he’s never shown himself to be good enough to make it as a Test opener, and throwing him to the wolves for the rest of the series would be almost cruel, so little chance would he have to succeed.
Renshaw is in a similar boat: his last first-class match came back in April, when two centuries for Australia A in Lincoln booked him his ticket to England. But three months since then, he is no more match-ready than Harris, and having never played an Ashes Test before, picking him would be the ultimate gamble despite having shown at times a temperament for the sort of stoic efforts that Australia could certainly use alongside Usman Khawaja at the top of the order.
A name thrown up from outside that pair, Cameron Bancroft, likewise hasn’t played for Somerset since May, with the County Championship giving way to the Vitality Blast T20 competition: even then, averaging just 19.57 in four matches, he wasn’t setting the world on fire.
That’s even before getting to the ridiculous suggestions, like the idea of jeopardising Travis Head’s brilliant series in the middle order by shifting him to open. A reasonable idea to attack the new ball in India, but in English conditions, there’s no better way to kill dead one of Australia’s biggest weapons.
Would trying any of these options be worse than sticking with Warner? Well… yes, all of them would be. Just one Test ago, Warner’s fine 66 on a treacherous opening morning at Lord’s set Australia on a path to a decisive first innings total, while at Edgbaston his 36 gave the Aussies what turned out to be a vital start to their successful run chase.
Broad might have his measure again… or it could just have been a one-off reversion to 2019, and he’ll be able to survive that opening spell at Old Trafford. Or things could only get worse. It’s 50/50 either way, but those are better odds than Australia could hope to get from dumping Warner in favour of a Hail Mary from Harris, Renshaw, Bancroft or even Head.
The truth of the matter is that Warner’s succession has been left far, far too late by the Australian selectors.
A soft summer against the West Indies and South Africa – the latter in terms of result pressure rather than lack of bowling quality – presented as an ideal chance to acclimate one of the aforementioned trio – Renshaw, most likely – and head into series in India and England with a viable alternative.
“Unless the Aussies think that, somehow, Warner can remain the man they need for nine Tests in India and England next year, a brutal call would surely give his replacement the best possible chance to thrive,” I wrote after his twin failures in Perth against the Windies to start the summer.
Warner could have been quietly told heading into his 100th Test on Boxing Day against the Proteas, having struggled mightily for runs for the entire summer to that point, that the match was to be his last, and that the New Year’s Test was to be used to give Renshaw a chance to develop a rapport with Khawaja in a lower-intensity setting than the tough challenges to come overseas.
Warner could have then gone out in a blaze of glory with his magnificent double-century at the MCG, and allowed the easiest possible transition at the top of the order.
Instead, Renshaw was, to put it mildly, dicked around: first inexplicably squeezed into the middle order at the SCG and then to start the India series despite all his Sheffield Shield success coming as an opener, then left out entirely for the remainder of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy having been played totally out of form despite a vacancy caused by Warner’s concussion and then fractured elbow.
Given the veteran’s history in England, there was always a risk of this happening: indeed, Australia should be counting themselves lucky it has taken until the third Test for Warner to fail as abjectly as he did at Headingley.
Australia’s selectors have let their David Warner problem fester away in the background for six months or more. They have had repeat opportunities to address it, to prepare contingencies, or even to bite the bullet and remove him entirely. Now, it is far too late.
Speaking at his post-match press conference following the third Test, Pat Cummins, having staunchly backed Warner in in an interview with Sky Sports‘ Michael Atherton, was far more non-committal about the opening position.
“We’ll keep all our options open,” was all he said when asked about Warner’s spot in the team.
The problem? Australia, right now, have closed them all.
The team is snookered into a position where Warner can no longer be reliably trusted to deliver for the final two Tests, yet there is no hope of a replacement doing any better.
All they can do is close their eyes, cross their fingers, and hope it doesn’t come back to haunt them too badly.