Big man, bigger problems

Key campaigner... Watson has been an integral part of Rajasthan Royals in the IPL.-VIVEK BENDRE

There’s something confounding about Shane Watson. For a tall, powerful player, he appears eternally vulnerable, his fragile confidence always on the verge of shattering. By Shreedutta Chidananda.

Before the start of the second Test in the ongoing Ashes series, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation ran an opinion poll on which all-rounder they’d like to see take the field at Lord’s. Some 6,269 people voted in favour of Mitchell Marsh, young, full of promise and then still awaiting his Test debut; only 577 chose Shane Watson.

The public can be fickle but this was a reminder of how far Watson had fallen. This was a player who won the Allan Border Medal, the biggest individual award in Australian cricket, in 2010 and 2011; the country’s Test player of the year award in 2011; the ODI player of the year award in 2010, 2011 and 2012; and the T20 player of the year in 2012 and ’13. The Australian selectors, as it turned out, agreed with their country in that ABC poll. At 34, there appears no way back into the Test team for Watson, unless Marsh has an injury and there is no other option.

“Tight call first Test, we went with experience, this Test we’ve gone with Mitch Marsh. Tough call on Shane but I’m sure he’s got plenty of cricket left in him,” the Australian coach Darren Lehmann said ahead of the second Test, denying that Watson’s Test career was effectively over. “I think it’s a case of him getting back. Try finding some form back and keeping putting his name in front of selectors. A chance very much like the World Cup where he got dropped and came back into side, so really form will dictate what Shane does.”

It is disappointing that it had to come to this. In the first Ashes Test in Cardiff, Watson was twice dismissed leg before — this has been his mode of dismissal often it would seem — thrusting his front leg out, playing around the ball and watching it thud into his pads. He reviewed the decision, an action that has now become something of a Watson joke, before replays revealed that the umpire only just got it right. Watson had fallen in the thirties again, when Australia needed him the most.

That he would lose his place to Marsh was no surprise to anyone afterwards. “A guy at that age, when he’s played a long time, when you make a decision like this now, it’s pretty much final, there’s probably no way back from being dropped now,” Steve Waugh told Sky Sports. “I think the frustrating thing about Shane is you always believe there’s more there than he’s producing because he looks good when he bats, he’s fantastic at first slip, he does a job with the ball, but at the same time you’ve got someone like Marsh who has got a lot of potential and is probably the future of Australian cricket.”

There’s something confounding about Watson. For a tall, powerful player, he appears eternally vulnerable, his fragile confidence always on the verge of shattering. His Test match form, never exemplary, has been slipping. He has only four hundreds against his name from 59 Test matches — meagre returns, anyone will admit. Since the beginning of 2011, he has scored only 11 fifties in 62 innings. His bowling was once an asset — decent pace, swing (conventional and reverse) and the ability to hold an end up. But his record with the ball has been poor too of late — only a wicket per Test match in his last 33. Yet when he strikes the ball, he does so effortlessly, his shots clean and long.

Perhaps Watson was never cut out for Test cricket, his technical flaws, his endless injuries and his seeming self-doubt maybe too much to deal with. Besides, Watson began life in the five-day game as an opener. It appears to have been his best position, one in which he averages over 50, having played almost 29 matches. His demotion seems to have affected him badly.

In the shortest format, though, Watson’s record has been exceptional. The Queenslander was the player of the tournament at the inaugural IPL, for his 472 runs and 17 wickets. In 2012, Watson declared the man of the series at the 2012 World T20 for his 249 runs and 11 wickets. In 2013, he was the IPL’s player of the tournament again, with 543 runs and 13 wickets.

At this year’s World Cup, Watson was dropped for the clash against Afghanistan in the group stages. It felt like the end of his One-Day career but he bounced back, making 67 against Sri Lanka and scoring a vital half-century over Pakistan in the quarterfinal. In the final, he was at the non-striker’s end when the winning runs were scored.

“When I got dropped, for me it wasn’t the end. I knew I was very close to turning things around,” he said. “I was lucky to get another opportunity.” It seems unlikely he will get another now.