Well-rounded all-rounder

These are early days yet. Australia expects much from Shane Watson. Full-fledged all-rounders come rare and Watson remains the great Aussie hope, writes S. Dinakar.

When Shane Watson was expected to explode on the world stage, he imploded. Rocked by injuries, he drifted away from public consciousness. Now, with his mind and body seemingly in harmony, Watson is buzzing again. At 28, he could still fulfil Australia’s long quest for an all-rounder.

These multi-dimensional men, of the genuine stock, add depth and options to a side. They also create a place, enabling a team to be flexible vis-a-vis conditions.

In Australia’s days from a glorious past, the mercurial Keith Miller was a match-winning all-rounder. Richie Benaud and Alan Davidson were also all-rounders who could impact the course of matches. Both were handy batsmen and turned or swung matches with the ball — Benaud with his crafty leg-spin and Davidson with his often deadly left-arm swing.

Subsequently, Australia searched for a Test match all-rounder of the conventional kind. But then, after the steely Allan Border steered the side past a turbulent phase, super specialists were the answer as Australia dominated the world stage.

Steve — he was only an occasional seamer in Tests — and Mark Waugh, David Boon, Matthew Hayden, Justin Langer, Ricky Ponting, Glenn McGrath, Jason Gillespie and Shane Warne were the out of the ordinary specialists as the Aussies reigned supreme.

The Aussie sides of this time did not require an all-rounder. The batsmen would put runs on the board and then the bowlers would get a side out twice. The Aussies were clinical; they also made it appear simple.

The side possessed a path-breaking unconventional all-rounder — the gifted wicketkeeper-batsman Adam Gilchrist — though. While Gilchrist could decimate attacks coming down the order and alter the script in a matter of overs with the willow, he was also an extremely efficient ’keeper with the precious ability to hold on to catches.

However, times have changed. Australia is no more a side of super specialists. McGrath, Warne, Hayden and Langer have drifted into the sunset. And Gilchrist, who lent balance to the side, has put a full stop to his international career.

Australia, rather desperately, sought an all-rounder. Watson could not have stepped in at a more opportune time. He is now dominant as an opening batsman and sends down lively spells of fast medium bowling.

Australia also has Mitchell Johnson developing as a bowling all-rounder. While Johnson’s left-arm pace remains his primary weapon, he is evolving as a dangerous striker of the ball lower down the order.

But then, Watson started his career as an all-rounder. His path to success has been a rocky one that has tested his resolve and commitment. He began as a bright-eyed blond who could dent limbs and ego with his bounce and send the ball a long way with the willow.

Then, a succession of injuries threatened his journey. The all-rounder was laid low by the dreaded stress fracture of the lower back more than once. He also hurt his groin and calf muscles. Each time he promised a comeback, Watson would break down again.

Watson’s resurgence began in IPL – Season One when he sizzled for Rajasthan Royals with his stunning strokeplay under pressure and hostile pace bowling. He hustled the batsmen with short-pitched bowling on the barren sub-continental tracks and then consumed them with the fuller length balls. Watson’s yorkers were on target.

His heroics earned him a recall to the Australian side for the ODI series in the West Indies in 2008 after Matthew Hayden suffered an injury. Watson pulled his weight with a punishing 126 in the ODI at St. George’s. Just when he was rebuilding his career, Watson suffered another back injury.

Credit is due to the Australian selectors for continuing to believe in Watson. The all-rounder was part of the side that travelled to Abu Dhabi for the ODI series against Pakistan. He responded with a fluent innings of 116 during the series.

And when the left-handed Phillip Jacques was sorted out by some well-directed short-pitched bowling by Andrew Flintoff in the Ashes, Watson was drafted in as a Test opener. His returns — 240 runs in three Tests at 48.00 — were rather impressive for a non-specialist. He was circumspect in the corridor and much of his driving was classy. In the ODI series that followed the Ashes, Watson tormented the English batsmen with the ball; he bowled better than his 10 wickets in the series indicate.

And he blazed away with the willow during Australia’s triumphant campaign in the ICC Champions Trophy late last year. Watson’s unbeaten 136 against England in the semifinals and his 105 not out at the expense of the Kiwis in the summit clash — both at Centurion — were supremely confident efforts.

Much of his pulling was extraordinary. He was getting into position quickly and dismissing the ball ruthlessly; the Aussie was indeed picking the length in a jiffy. Watson also essayed the delicate shots behind point to reveal another aspect of his batsmanship; he waited and guided the ball with soft hands.

Watson finished with 265 runs in five matches at 88.33 (strike-rate 91.06) in the star-studded competition. After the departure of Hayden, Australia was on the look-out for a dominant opening batsman with a powerful physical presence at the crease. Watson fitted the bill.

Along the way he has formed a combative opening partnership with the left-handed Simon Katich. Their contrasting styles — Watson is firm with his strokes off either foot while Katich is a grafter — force the bowlers to switch their line and this makes the pair an interesting one.

Watson’s unbeaten 120 against Pakistan — his maiden Test century — at the MCG was a wonderfully stroke-filled effort. He also missed hundreds — Watson has this habit of getting dismissed in the 90s — against the West Indies and Pakistan in the home season down under. However, his 97 in the second innings of the sensational Sydney Test was an outstanding effort.

Australia began its second innings 206 runs adrift of Pakistan and Watson’s drives down-the-ground and his rip-roaring pulls compelled attention. Extremely strong off his back-foot, he has this ability to convert the length. Warne calls Watson a “quality batsman.”

Watson has also added value to the Australian attack, taking the load off the specialists and securing the breakthroughs. While Johnson, Bollinger and either Siddle or Hilfenhaus form a lively pace attack, Watson’s speed, bounce and movement make him a threat as a fourth paceman. He has re-modelled his action. But he can still generate impressive pace and has the aggression of a fast bowler. Crucially, his body has held firm lately.

Watson’s Test record — he has 1076 runs at 41.38 and 25 wickets at 33.12 — is a promising one. In the ODIs, he has been influential with 2776 runs in 96 games at 40.64 and 99 wickets at 28.96.

These are early days yet. Australia expects much from Watson. Full-fledged all-rounders come rare and Watson remains the great Aussie hope.