Australia’s selectors have intimated that the controversial batsman may bat at first-drop; Ben Jones analyses their options.
Australia don’t arrive at the 2019 World Cup in the best of nick. Whilst series wins against India and Pakistan have boosted their confidence after a dreary year, they are still one of the least formidable Australian sides of the modern era. They will go into their opening game against Afghanistan having won just 48% of their matches in the previous 12 months; that’s their worst record ahead of any tournament in the modern era.
This isn’t a poor Australian team – their attack is too talented to say that – but rest assured, it isn’t a strong Australian side either. Their batting is a touch under-powered, and their spin attack could be shown up on flatter wickets. If they get to the semi-finals, they will have performed well, and should be pleased with their efforts.
Of course, that isn’t really the Australian way. Even back when India were touring last winter, commentators and writers were looking at ways to fix the ODI side, and what was curious (to an outsider) was how they didn’t speak about simply improving the side, but about picking a team that could ‘actually win the World Cup’. The tone was of revolution, not evolution; settling for respectability is not, at least in the broad-brush world of national stereotypes, part of the Australian sporting psyche.
As such, Australian fans, pundits and coaches are willing to be a bit radical, to try and steal a march on their rivals by pulling an unusual move. This has manifested most obviously in the discussion around the reintegration of David Warner. Returning from his ban, the batsman should slot in at the top of the order, his natural home and where he’s made his substantial reputation. Yet this has been questioned.
After all, those Australian wins in the UAE and India came with Usman Khawaja and Aaron Finch at the top of the order, forming a solid opening partnership that built platforms, time and time again, for other players to come in and move the score from defendable to genuinely competitive. Beating India in India is a serious achievement, and the combination of Finch and Khawaja was hugely influential in that result. To disrupt that partnership by bringing Warner back would, so the argument goes, be a significant mistake.
If Warner were to return to the top of the order, it would be Khawaja who would make way, given that Finch is not as versatile as his current partner. The Victorian has batted 105 times in ODIs, and 103 of those innings have been in the opening pair; Khawaja on the other hand is used to batting in the middle order, in both ODIs and Tests. Pushing against this, eloquent cases have been made for Khawaja holding onto that opening berth, cases that have largely focused on how his personal record opening the batting is significantly better than when not. Khawaja averages more runs per innings when opening, and he scores those runs more quickly. It’s hard to refute that he prefers batting in the opening pair.
One of the potential reasons for this is that Khawaja starts slowly. Whilst a very elegant batsman when he’s in form, he does not have a particularly wide range of easy release shots, and can get bogged down; he also lacks the power to just go hard and frighten captains into putting the field back, easing any early pressure.
The consequence of all this is that, when batting in the middle order, Khawaja scores more slowly off his first 20 balls than any other Australian.
When opening the batting, he can get away with these slow starts. He has more gaps to hit in Powerplay 1, getting better value for the attacking strokes he does play, but also crucially he has more time to play with. A slow start is not fatal to Australia’s chances, because there is time both for him to catch up, or for others to recover. When he arrives in the 25th over, bats slowly for 10 overs and then gets out, he’s significantly damaged the team effort. Opening doesn’t so much maximise the effect of Khawaja’s strengths, but rather minimise the negative effect of his flaws.
So, in that sense, there is a lot to be gained from Khawaja opening. There could also be unexpected benefits, not just in keeping Khawaja at the top of the order, but of batting Warner at three. Australia don’t have many good players of spin in their side; only three Aussies average 50+ against spin since 2015, and David Warner is one of them. Putting him lower in the order could help them in the middle overs, when more spin is bowled.
It’s not necessarily that Warner has a wide range of devastating techniques to counter spinners. He does sweep effectively (averaging 32 but scoring at 8.6rpo), and rarely uses his feet to the spinners (coming down just 7% of the time, less than the 9% average for Australian ODI batsmen since 2015), but the primary strength in Warner’s game against spin is his elimination of risk. He scores at less than a run-a-ball, but he does so extremely securely.
Since the last World Cup, Warner is almost twice as secure against spin than he is against pace. It is rare that a spinner is able to find the edge of Warner’s bat; in part due to the periods of the innings when he faces them, but also because his technique is watertight against them. Even when facing spinners in Powerplay 1, Warner gets out every 39 balls, compared to every 41 against pace.
So, there’s the logic behind why you may want to drop Warner down the order to No.3. His strengths cover a weakness of this Australian side – moving him to three is appealingly simple, and potentially gets the best out of another player.
However, it feels a bit like overthinking. Warner appears to have been the first person ever to get worse while he’s not been in the team. English all-rounder Liam Dawson’s reputation grew from competent cricketer to a Ponting-Murali hybrid when he wasn’t selected for the initial World Cup squad, and it’s not a new phenomenon. Players left out always feel more enticing, a silver bullet that can return to the side and cure all the ills of the XI. It’s more appealing than waiting for good players, already in the team, to start being good again. Yet Warner has suffered the opposite fate. People have rapidly forgotten how good he is.
Since the last World Cup, no Australian has a higher average Impact with the bat than Warner. His Impact (+11.1) is more than double the next best batsman, Matthew Wade, whose +4.6 figure is rendered yet more obsolete by the fact he’s not even in the World Cup squad. There is no question, no modicum of doubt, that Warner is Australia’s best batsman.
Since that 2015 tournament, Warner has made 2296 ODI runs, at an average of 56.00, and has chalked up 10 centuries. Every one of those runs, each of those centuries, was made opening the batting. To look at this batsman, who has proved over a long period of time – not just in two series over the last six months – that he is the beating heart of the ODI side, and suggest that the place he has forged that reputation is, perhaps, not best suited for him, is perverse.
In truth, the calls for Warner to drop out of the opening pair are as likely to be fuelled by the controversy of the last year, as they are by cricketing judgement. Moving him away from his preferred position feels like a form of contrition, a statement from the powers that be that you don’t just get to slot back in as you were, no questions asked. There is probably a fair bit of weight to that argument. If that’s what matters most, then it makes sense.
However – it isn’t what matters most. Australia are one of six teams who can win the World Cup, but they are only just in that bracket. England have enough world class batsmen to drop Alex Hales because he was becoming a distraction; Australia don’t have enough world class batsmen to in any way limit Warner’s effectiveness. Make your statements in the press, present his reintegration in whatever manner you wish, but when the cricket starts, Warner is Australia’s star player and should be treated as such.
The actual radical option, in this curious situation, is to return to the status quo. Warner should open the batting – if he does, Australia give themselves a puncher’s chance.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.