02 June 2013

Opinion: Australian Opening Duo for the 2013 Ashes Series

What will Australia's best opening combination be for the 2013 Ashes series?

Click on the image to enlarge it for some quick facts and stats regarding our Ashes opening contenders.
This is a trending topic of debate I picked up over the last few weeks, especially after David Warner's Twitter outburst, Shane Watson's return of confidence and all-rounder duties, and lastly Chris Rogers and Ed Cowan's involvement in the County circuit.

Phillip Hughes has been used in the number three to middle order role is recent times so I don't see him being relevant to the topic of debate. After 2009 I also don't see him being used in an opening role capacity for the sake of psychological safety.

Sylvester and I will be presenting a combined effort to share our analytical views as to which way the selectors may go and what we see as a possible "best fit" for the Ashes opening duo. His is up first, so grab a cup of coffee and perhaps a meal to get through mine too.

This Ashes series isn't about players necessarily writing their own stories for longevity. It is a short-term objective to win back the urn and out batting is the identified weakness. If the batting clicks we will win. Based on this all that should be taken into account is come each Test is; which batsmen will have the most confidence, and tactically/ strategically based on the conditions, results and performances what is the best side for each Test. As a result a set in stone side is not a logical motive.

If the selected opening duo fall in line for at least the first two Tests then that combo may stand, but the gut feeling is that a set duo may not be the logical/ traditional option given this is a short-term side picked to balance experience with enthusiastic emerging campaigners, whilst trying counter-attack testing conditions and high quality English bowlers. Variation is just an aspect of the mix and may be so come the starting XI throughout the series to try get back that urn.

Have a read and have your say! Catch up on related articles below in case you missed them.

- If you missed the Ashes squad analysis article, you can read it via this link.
- What conditions can be expected at the Ashes venues? Look into it via this article.

- Our 2013 Champions Trophy squad and the SWOT analysis? Catch up on it via this link.

Sylvester's view: Twitter profile

Ed Cowan:
There has been no doubt about the type of player Cowan is, but "starts" should be his middle name. His big problem to date has been converting his starts not only into 100s but lately 50s. He only has six fifties from 30 innings of which he has 12 scores between 20 and 49. He does one job of the opener very well in seeing off the new ball but his conversion rate leaves a lot to be desired. 

One con for players in the Ashes squad playing County cricket instead of playing IPL - or resting - is what Cowan is experiencing at the moment. Cowan's form in County cricket has been average to say the least. He has played 5 matches so far averaging 34 with two fifties from 9 innings. It would be harsh to drop a player based on County form but with Rogers banging the wall down something might have to give.

Strengths: Gets a start and chews up a lot of deliveries to wear down that new ball.
Weakness: Appears to lack concentration at vital stages of both his innings and the team innings and, as a result, ends up getting out softly. While he chews up the deliveries there always appears to be a ball with his name on it. 

David Warner:
David Warner is an interesting case, as he started his career in Marcus North fashion as a rocks or diamonds player but by the start of the Windies tour he became more star orientated. Within 5 matches, Warner had made two hundreds both in very tricky conditions. His maiden hundred came against New Zealand in the Hobart mess where he was the only batsman that stood tall. The other was in Perth again in tough conditions which he made look very easy. Other than fellow opener Cowan, no batsmen made runs in that match.

Those two matches show Warner has the ability to bat in tough conditions but many people have been suggesting he will struggle against the swinging ball. The Ashes was always going to be the litmus test for that theory, I am slightly leaning towards him struggling against the swinging ball but the memory of those two matches give me hope.

Strengths: Can turn a match in Australia's favour with his raw power.
Weakness: Looks suspect against swing bowling and can struggle against spin - exposed in India. Can get out in a very soft manner. 

Chris Rogers:
Chris Rogers may well reap the rewards for extensively playing County cricket. On the back of his surprise call up he has smashed County bowlers around the park amassing 552 runs at an average of 61 with 4 fifties and a massive double hundred. While his conversion rate could be better, it is hard to say anything bad about his form to date. This comes on the back of his excellent Shield season where he scored 742 runs at 49.5 with three hundreds and a fifty showing converting 50s is not a major issue for him.

The only thing going against Rogers would be the unknown factor. It will be a risk throwing Rogers to basically be making his test debut on the biggest stage of them all. He does has the one advantage of being vastly experienced, especially in English conditions, over a younger guy who might have been in the same position. 

Strengths: Vastly experienced in English conditions, converts well and has very good application.
Weakness: I admit I haven't seen enough of him to point out technical flaws but the main weakness (or question) would be can he deliver if thrown into the deep end?

Shane Watson:
Shane Watson...probably the most debatable player currently in the Australian team. Should he play as a batsman only, should he play as an all rounder, should he open, should he bat lower so he can bowl?
These are just some of the questions you get when talking about Watson. 

The people on the "Watson should be opener camp" have been harping on about his average of over 40 while opening and that he is most comfortable opening. While the stats do suggest this, he has played most of his career at 3 or 4 so I really don't see why he can't bat in either of those positions at the top level - despite the statistics. 

Form wise Watson has had a shocker since the last Ashes in 2010/11. His series averages read 17.4, 23.8, 32.2, 17.5, 39.3 and 16.5. If this was the statistics review of a pure batsman he would be cut in a flash. 

If Watson were to be moved back to the top then obviously the more successful numbers at the top will work in his favour, on the back of English experience. He is probably more likely to get a 50 plus score in comparison to our current openers, which also works in his favour. However his much talked about hundred tally works against him as an opener should be converting his 50s as well. Of the players mentioned Watson would be the least of the must be opener, in my opinion.

Strengths: Did alright in the last Ashes series in England as opener and showed character in 2009. Recently scored a big century for Australia in our first warm-up game. 
Weakness: Suspect against the swinging ball and prone to LBWs. Poor conversion rates to date.

I am sitting on the fence a bit as I won't be too unhappy with whoever the selectors pick as our openers. Rogers would be one of my picks as his best position is opener in the swinging conditions and you need a guy that can confidently handle these conditions but also leave the good balls.
The next position is a bit trickier. If Cowan was showing better form I would have no hesitation in picking him. I am tempted to leave Warner at top to see how he goes against the swinging ball so we can prove once and for all how he copes against Anderson and company. For me a lot will depend on the warm up games as it is that close the grand contest.

Ian's view: Twitter Profile

Ed Cowan:
Ed Cowan's fought hard to try take guard in the Ashes. With David Warner, a naturally aggressive batsman, at the other end it can't be easy for Cowan to stick to his guns with his defensive, steadily cautious nature. An average that has the critics pointing fingers and an approach that is seen as being "too slow" may be unfair. However, despite my viewpoint as "only being fair" to see Ed play from the get-go in the Ashes, it's no guarantee any of these four players will open.

Ed has also taken initiative to get English experience behind him, playing for Notthinghamshire in County cricket - Division one. As of 1 June, he's scored 254 runs at an average of 36.28. He's found difficulty in converting his starts into bigger scores, something that's handicapped his performances for Australia.

It has been reported though that in the tougher conditions he has shown impressive application and a determination to succeed. This was most evident during a game against Middlesex at Trent Bridge in April, where Ed scored a hard-fought half-century. His opposite number though was Chris Rogers who notched up half-centuries in both innings (50 and 51*).

Given Cowan's likelihood to play in the Ashes and the warm-up games being the ultimately decisive factor in his selection, it would be wise to explore the Ed Cowan and David Warner duo.

They have a combined average of 43.03, with 1,291 runs scored from 30 innings. Of these 30 innings they've gone beyond a fifty run-partnership 9 times (30% conversion rate). This isn't too bad by any means.

30 innings may also not seem like much, but Simon Katich and Shane Watson partnered at the top of the order 29 times with better results. Australia - when we're in better shape - will in time need to find a duo with enough long-term focus to develop something as prolific as the Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer duo. 122 innings with 6,081 runs at 51.53. Quite remarkable.

Some might say don't break it up if there's no need to fix it.
I don't think it's a valid statement heading into the 2013 Ashes series as although they've steadily built a foundation of sorts, my opinion is that the opening duo this Ashes is about the best tactical choice to combat the new ball. Ed Cowan has a good case for himself come this dynamic.

Consistency has been an issue with Australian selection, but this side wasn't selected for the objective of consistency and stability. Unity for this squad must come with the desire to win, not to form an all-boys club in the long run with the hope that the most seen players in recent times will succeed.

David Warner:
Given Rogers' current form and experience, Watson's average in Ashes contests with all-rounder duties returning, along with Cowan's recent experience that has greater relevance than IPL or limited overs cricket; David Warner appears to be far from a certain starter for the Ashes - at least in terms of opening the batting.

His aggressive nature and confidence, which may be leveraged through from a strong ICC Champions Trophy campaign (dismissed for a duck in our warm-up game), cannot be underestimated. However, against a swinging ball sent down by high quality bowlers in their home conditions, this nature may prove to be a downfall with a lack of First-class/ Test cricket exposure in English conditions. As much as I support Warner, I see risk in his selection for the opening Tests.

Cowan has a lower average than Warner's 39.46, but appears to have better application and focus to combat tougher bowling attacks. Cowan's got the current edge with an immediate understanding of current English condition.

The last time I saw Warner bat with mighty impressive application beyond his natural game in very testing conditions was against New Zealand in Hobart, as mentioned by Sylvester. The ball was swinging, the Black Caps were hitting their lines and Warner was a man on a lonesome mission. If he could show this sort of determination in England and hold back from an overly-aggressive drive it will serve him well. The catch is this approach will be required for a longer period than an innings in Hobart.

Matthew Hayden was aggressive though? Yes, but Hayden had experience in England by the time his natural game had reached its greatest heights and he'd been through some grueling trials and tribulations to earn that reputation that still resonates with any aggressive Australian top order batsman.

Having thought about this particular comparative for some time, nestled down the order Warner may bring about that Adam Gilchrist X-factor. Would be the greatest thrill seeing Warner belt England's bowlers about!

I would enjoy seeing Warner moved into a middle order role. He could be the firepower in the shed that never allows the opposition to relax even once they've worked through the top to middle order.
If Watson is set to play as an all-rounder, this middle order position may be occupied by him (keeping in mind Watson's stats are poor below a number one role) and should Warner not make an impression in the warm-up games, he may find himself not playing until a later stage.

It's a personal opinion, but while Warner's outburst on Twitter was valid given the constant negativity the high profile writers harp on about, I do think he knows his place is not a guarantee. A bit of pressure?
The opening paragraph for the Warner analysis shows exactly why and I feel if he doesn't get sufficient runs behind his name, it wouldn't be wise to play him as a certain opener. If he does show confidence and form, get him in the side! If that's to play as an opener...well, that is up in arms. 

Chris Rogers:
In 2012 Chris Rogers wrote a guest piece for ESPN Cricinfo regarding Australia's emerging batsmen's technical flaws. Sylvester covered this shortly in an article titled 'The Technical Failings of the Younger Generation'. A year later, Rogers is in the Australian squad with a chance to showcase his knowledge and skills on the elite stage.

It would be potentially daft not to play Chris Rogers. It would also be harsh to an extent.
A man who scored 1,086 runs at 40.22 last year in the County first division, 742 runs at 49.46 in Sheffield Shield (second most behind Ricky Ponting) and 552 runs for Middlesex at 61.33 (as of 1 June) with a personal best of 214, it's hard to find reason not to play him.

The opening game for his division was at Trent Bridge and he scored back-to-back half-centuries. This is also the venue for the opening Ashes Test. His home ground is Lord's whilst playing for Middlesex, the venue for the 2nd Test. Recently between England and New Zealand batting conditions at Lord's seemed the toughest I have seen in sometime. It's another advantage to play Rogers.

Rogers' selection has put pressure on the Cowan/ Warner duo and for good reason. This Ashes is about winning back the urn to defend it back in Australia soon after. It's healthy competition and given his selection is a short-term one, if he is better ready than the rest he must be playing as the best.

The statistics back Rogers' form in both Australia and England. He has sufficient experience in English conditions and has fought like a dog to have this opportunity. If anything, one of the oldest men in our Ashes squad will have the most hunger. The warm up games and what lies ahead for his Middlesex duties will be the final tick to the box to ensure we get this experienced campaigner in our starting XI.

Shane Watson:
For the record, I really like Shane Watson and support him with every aspect of his career. I rate his game.
Having said that, if Watson cannot bowl, he shouldn't play simply based on his form in Test cricket. His lack of runs in recent years does not warrant default selection. An average of 25.35 is deemed not good enough.
When he's performed bowling duties he's contributed with immense value and seemed far more confident as a team player. A good memory is his bowling performance against Pakistan in the two Test match series in England a few years back, especially at Lord's. As an all-rounder he has value, and if he continues to score big runs in the build up he can't be overlooked.

The biggest thing to consider is Shane Watson's average of 48.21 in the Ashes.
This is higher than that of Cowan and Warner's collective average and personal averages. Watson had to step up big time in 2009 when Phillip Hughes was dropped. Watson then partnered up with Simon Katich and, in my opinion, there hasn't been an opening duo as good since then.

Together they averaged 52.72 from 29 innings and the left hand/ right hand combo was a fit. Watson's aggressive nature with Katich's cautious approach worked like a dream. Cowan and Warner have a similar characteristic with just as many innings as a duo but the impression left is far from that Katich and Watson achieved.

Wait on, Watson didn't convert enough innings of fifty plus into centuries!
I'd rather have a guy scoring 80s and 90s, than 30s and 40s and Watson's history opening the batting showcased high individual scores falling short of a century on numerous occasions. I'd also be happy to see him in our side if he is performing as an all-rounder and hits good enough batting form to warrant his selection. Should he not be used as an opener, where he has been best suited statistically and personally, a middle-order role could put Warner under pressure for a spot if Cowan and Rogers get the nod to open.

Watson's recent debacle in India didn't help his public profile too much but as soon as he dropped the vice-captaincy he was scoring good runs in the IPL, along with a dashing 135 runs 98 deliveries in a warm-up game against the West Indies for the ICC Champions Trophy. He has some hard work ahead to make the starting XI but Ashes experience and an improvement in form is boosting his case.

Between Warner and Cowan there is a history with a fairly competitive average. Collectively they may struggle as a duo in the Ashes against high quality swing bowling in their debut Ashes series, especially for the first two matches. Cowan has the edge with recent County experience, good control over his temperament and technique, and was reported to have shown solid application against the moving ball at Trent Bridge.

Watson has a personal Ashes batting average that is better than that of Cowan and Warner's collective and personal averages. He has sound experience and with a return to all-rounder duties he will have big value. His downfall is a poor Test average in recent times without bowling duties. Fact is if it weren't for his unquestionable talent and being one of our few all-rounders, his recent Test form wouldn't see him selected.

Rogers has the experience and has been scoring the runs for Middlesex, notably at Trent Bridge and Lord's (21/ 214 vs Surrey), where the first two Tests will be played. England's bowlers put New Zealand in turmoil with excellent bowling conditions and the history of Trent Bridge is one of the toughest conditions to bat in if a player cannot handle swing bowling. This may give Rogers a massive advantage with the selectors.

Chris Rogers, Ed Cowan and Shane Watson stand tall as the three in front for the 1st and 2nd Tests.
David Warner, while not in my opening spot from the go, will have unquestionable value in the middle order for additional fire power should he not open, possibly putting Shane Watson out of the picture if he cannot bat and bowl for Australia.

Come the announcement of our Ashes squad I was confident with this side. I will support whoever gets selected one hundred percent, but it's good to form an opinion and look at the options. Spare a thought for the selectors!

*All statistics courtesy of ESPN Cricinfo.com

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Eric Thomas said...

Well written article. Very insightful. It would be interesting to see which way the selectors go.

Unknown said...

As they've selected Rogers, they need to play him. Even if it's at 4 or 6.

Cowan and Warner for openers at least for the first couple of tests, though I can't see either of them doing much if the weather remains humid and mizzly like it's been so far this 'summer'.