If time in the middle is the best investment available to an opening batsman, Shane Watson and Chris Rogers have missed a gilt-edged bargain at Hove.
While the Australian pair remained in London where they worked in the nets at Lord’s and considered how to convert their promising Ashes starts into more substantial and match-shaping partnerships, their replacements received the dividends in the tour match against Sussex.
Playing his 100th first-class match and first as captain of an Australian XI, Ed Cowan grafted a half-century that promised significantly more than it ultimately delivered. Phil Hughes laboured to 84 in an innings that underlined his capacity to unfurl the most unorthodox strokes while doing little to dispel the suspicion that any delivery could have his number.
The longer both men batted on a Hove pitch as benign as the County Ground’s sloping outfield was rapid, the less likely it appeared that they would be required at Old Trafford on Thursday.
An opening stand of 150 should have been cause for celebration; instead it suggested an opportunity lost. Australia’s eventual 354 for 5 did little to contradict the view that early runs were there for the taking though it took Steve Smith (98 not out) and James Faulkner (48) to gallop to the finish line to nudge the total beyond the merely adequate.
Any nerves Smith felt over his place in the Test team should have evaporated as he neared the seventh century of his career.
Yet Cowan’s comments on the eve of the match provided the clearest argument for Watson and Rogers to play after scoring just one half-century between them in the first two Tests.
“Any time you have the chance to score runs is a habit you want to get into,” Cowan said. “No one needs to be reminded of the value of getting into that habit.”
Reserve wicketkeeper Matthew Wade had already argued that the exiled David Warner’s 193 for Australia A this week had raised the stakes for the rest of the Australian batsmen. Warner is riding an irresistible wave of momentum to return to the Test team with Hughes, after scores of 81 not out, 0, 1 and 1, under most pressure to make way.
“Warner has set the bar pretty high for us for the next couple of days,” Wade said. “He has got a big hundred but anyone else who gets a big hundred here has a chance to play in the third Test.”
That proved academic with Usman Khawaja falling for 40 after building a solid foundation, while Wade himself succumbed for a duck.
Former England spinner Monty Panesar enticed false strokes from both left-handers. He also ended the rollicking 131-run stand between Smith and Faulkner when the latter attempted a heave into the changing rooms.
As the Hove Tannoy clarified that the ground’s eight-pint rule referred to a purchase limit and not a compulsory drinking requirement, the top order vanished as though required to join one of the queues assembling within the sell-out crowd.
Chris Jordan – resembling former England paceman David Lawrence, the muscular five-Test quick who terrorised Perth club teams in the 1980s – troubled both openers but was frustrated by regular edges bursting over, under and, once, through the cordon. Jordan was eventually taxed at a run a ball after an opening spell that created half-a-dozen half-chances.
His neat catch at slip off Khawaja indicated considerable versatility, though it is likely he would have preferred Chris Nash to hang on to the edge from Hughes that would have made him the first bowler to 50 first-class wickets this summer.
Lewis Hatchett has a surname to make a sub-editor salivate, and a hairstyle and bowling action to recall Australia’s Doug Bollinger before he morphed into the more hirsute Doug the Rug. Steady but unthreatening in the first session, Hatchett got the older ball to swing and brought about the downfall of both openers.
Cowan was crestfallen after chipping to the diving James Taylor at square-leg. Cowan, of all the batsmen, knew that the selectors would not move his name from the possibles list without it being attached to a century or more here. Hughes was undone by a peach of an outswinger that squared him up and caught the edge in a fashion made familiar by New Zealand’s Chris Martin and Vernon Philander, of South Africa.
Cowan started well when he won the toss and batted first at a ground where Middlesex scored 401 in a day last week in conditions that could have been no more friendly than today.
Cowan said Australia may have made a mistake in the first two tour matches by declaring early in the push for victory when they may have been better served by giving the batsmen extra time in the middle. Australia declared five-down after 75 first-innings overs against Somerset and ended both innings early against Worcestershire. “Maybe we fell into a trap early in the tour,” he said.
“It is about making sure everyone is prepared as well as possible for the next Test. Ashes tours aren’t made by wins against county teams. Winning is an objective but that might be a bit tough over three days on a very good wicket.”