A core player

With his well-documented injury problems, it seems rather certain that Shane Watson’s long-term future lies more with his batting than bowling, writes Priyansh.

“I’d never had chest pains before, so I didn’t know what it was.”

Back in 2006, when it was tough to say whether Shane Watson was a cricketer or an actor who worked in teen films, the Australian all-rounder suffered a heart attack during the Champions Trophy in India. Or so he feared.

Watson was rushed to a Chandigarh hospital, only to discover it was a bout of severe gastritis. The then 25-year-old later explained that as he was “just about crumpled up on the floor,” his thoughts turned to his former Tasmania team-mate Scott Mason, who had died from a heart attack a year ago.

Fair point. But when we look back now — having experienced joy and frustration in equal measure while following Watson’s career — the sense that things are not always as big as they seem with the Queenslander is inescapable. For a long time, the all-rounder has promised much but failed to realise the entire potential.

Watson is 32 now. With his well-documented injury problems, it seems rather certain that his long-term future lies more with his batting than bowling. After suffering a calf problem in the Boxing Day Test against Sri Lanka last year, Watson decided to quit bowling in order to prolong his career.

Yet, four months later during the IPL, the Australian was back to being an all-rounder. Watson claimed that he was tempted back into bowling after seeing Mahendra Singh Dhoni hammer Australia in the Chennai Test. The muscular batsman’s inability to help his team-mates made him feel inadequate, an idea he discussed in greater detail upon coming to India for the IPL.

“Being an all-rounder certainly gives you more opportunities. For me, the most exciting thing about being an all-rounder is that I can contribute to my team’s performance whether I’m batting or bowling. The way the game works, especially in the shorter formats, you can get out without scoring too many. And if I’m only batting, I can’t have any impact — apart from fielding — on the game.”

However, in the past few months, Watson’s drive to bowl again has been strengthened more by his batting failures than his passion for becoming an all-rounder. The Australian endured a disappointing Ashes in England, managing only 216 runs in eight innings with a single fifty before hammering 176 in the final Test at Oval. The century took a weight off his shoulders, claimed Watson.

“In one-day cricket, I have always felt that I can get the big runs. But in Tests, I doubted whether I could bat for longer periods of time, which I had not done for quite a while.”

Yet, Watson’s susceptibility to incoming deliveries was crudely exposed throughout the series. By the end of the fourth Test, it seemed almost inevitable that he would succumb to an lbw decision. Australia’s previous coach Mickey Arthur, who shared a turbulent relationship with Watson during his tenure, could hardly contain himself as he watched the all-rounder bat against England.

“I am talking to the television. The funny thing as a coach is with a trained eye and knowing the psyche of all the players, I can sit and watch something developing and know what’s going to happen an over later. I’m going ‘don’t do that again, keep hitting straight, they’re trying to set you up for the lbw... keep hitting straight, oh across the line, damn lbw again.’”

Herein lie the frustrations engendered by Watson. Despite being a senior member of the Australian team who has also captained the side in the past, the 32-year-old has seemingly never grown up. Somehow Watson continues to find ways to get into trouble, while also being tardy in his response to repair situations.

His initial pronouncements in the aftermath of the ‘Homework-gate’ are revealing.

“I realised that I have got an amazing amount of support from many very good people, whom I respect a lot. It was overwhelming. So, for me, that really continued to solidify in my mind that I’m doing the best I can to be the best person and cricketer. The support that I got publicly and privately around that time provided me a lot of strength.”

While one may argue the punishment handed out to Watson was harsh, his conduct was certainly unprofessional. At a time when Australia’s morale was sapped by humiliating defeats, senior players like him needed to support Arthur and Michael Clarke’s plans. No wonder Arthur later alleged that the skipper described Watson as a ‘cancer’ on the national team.

Fortunately, the all-rounder seems to have ridden over the storm to regain his place as a core player. For, Australia’s resources are bare and it can ill-afford to lose a special cricketer like Watson. At the height of the ‘Homework-gate’, one was drawn back to the episode leading to Andrew Symonds’ retirement. The feisty all-rounder quit the national side under a cloud, claiming he failed to connect with the new team culture ushered in by the retirement of senior players within a short period.

Symonds, though, was a rebel, unlike our subject. Watson is more of a conformist. He yearns for support and approval from his elders, not so much from his peers. His confidence shredded by repeated injuries and failures, Watson continues to grow up.