Jamie Alter: The Tasmanian opener\'s runs made it impossible to ignore him.
There's something about the expectancy of an in-form opener entering the Test scene. It can be fuelled by the individual's run-scoring ability, his hunger for big scores in pressure situations. It can be because of an aging veteran's impending retirement, and the interest around whether the selectors will give him the chop. It can be the promise of fresh talent, of watching a batsman with much potential being given the biggest opportunity of his career.
If this happens before or during a marquee series – such as happened in the case of India's Sadagoppan Ramesh, England's Andrew Strauss and Australia's Phillip Hughes – then the opener in question is watched with immense scrutiny because his selection has been the talking point for some time.
Of late, the case for Tasmanian opener Ed Cowan to be selected in Australia’s Test squad had proved very difficult to ignore. Not since a 20-year-old Hughes debuted in February 2009, with a first-class average of 60 and amid calls of the next Matthew Hayden being found, had the focus on a potential Test opener been so pronounced. That Cowan has replaced the same Hughes, who at the moment inspires as much confidence as an opening batsman as Woody Allen does on a first date, is another matter.
Cowan, 29, has a creditable CV. Having moved from New South Wales to Tasmania at the end of the 2008-09 season, frustrated by a lack of opportunities, he churned out 957 runs at 53.16 which was the second best for the Sheffield Shield. He played every game for Tasmania, and scored a career-best 225.
In June 2010, he was selected to play for Australia A against Sri Lanka and replied with a century. This season, he has averaged 54 in the Sheffield Shield with four first-class centuries, including 145 against the touring New Zealanders while representing Australia A and 109 for the Cricket Australia Chairman's XI against the Indians. That last century came after Cowan was allowed to play for the CA XI so the selectors could get another look at him.
With a bit of luck – he was run out on 95 but obstructed the umpire's view as a direct hit found him short – Cowan reached a century, and his reply has earned him a baggy green. Cowan looks a solid opener with a good technique and temperament, and that he has been churning out runs - his recent scores read 91*, 4, 134*, 145, 10, 65, 145* and 109. adds to his value. In the New Zealand warm-up fixture, he faced Doug Bracewell, Chris Martin, Trent Boult and Tim Southee, who in the second Test in Hobart bowled their country to a famous win. In Canberra, he faced Zaheer Khan, Umesh Yadav, Abhimanyu Mithun, Vinay Kumar, Pragyan Ojha and R Ashwin, out of whom three are certain starters for Boxing Day. This undoubtedly counted in Cowan's favour.
But perhaps most telling is Cowan's attitude towards his game. In a recent interview, he matter-of-factly replied to questions about whether he felt he should have been called up earlier. "I don't think I deserved it [before] with the team they've had," he said. "It's only since I moved to Tasmania that I have developed a consistency to my four-day and one-day cricket, and I'm a believer in having to do that over a number of years to deserve your spot. Over time I've become more comfortable with myself. The beautiful thing about cricket is it attracts all types and half of the battle is finding that balance of yourself and [then] willing to be yourself."
There's another former Australian opener who spoke on the same lines a few years ago. "Being on the fringes is probably the hardest spot to be in on any cricket team," said Phil Jaques, the New South Wales batsman who played 11 Tests between 2005-08 when asked once about the emotions he went through when tipped to replace Justin Langer.
Jacques would know. For years he was a prolific run-scorer for NSW and Northamptonshire, and his emergence as opener in 2007 – he had played two Tests in the span of four months earlier in his career – in Langer's absence came on the back of another solid season and mid much support from the Australian media and former players, most noticeably the former Australian captain and opener Mark Taylor. Jacques opened the innings alongside Matthew Hayden and scored consecutive centuries against Sri Lanka. His form tapered off after two half-centuries against India at home, and the form of Simon Katich – Man of the Match in Jacques' final Test - and the return of Hayden forced the selectors to drop Jacques after he scored a century in his final appearance. Three surgeries on a troublesome back led to the loss of a contract in 2009 and the 32-year-old has never played for his country again.
Like Jacques, Cowan's rise to the Test team has been followed closely by many and he has found support from strong quarters. He may not be the most deserving opener to receive a baggy green – Jacques and Chris Rogers had more to show when they were called up as openers – but considering his form and the problems Australia face, his call-up is deserved. By sheer volume of runs, Cowan made it impossible to be ignored. Whether his career charts its own course or follows the path of Jacques remains to be seen, but for now Australia have picked the right man.
In 2007, there was a flood of contenders for Langer's Test spot – the veteran of 105 matches - at the top of Australia's line-up. In 2011, there is one name pushing to replace Hughes, whose Test career has been derailed after 17 matches. It is a fascinating time to enter the Australian set-up.