Cricket: Time to return to the elementary, dear Watson

Shane Watson has been nothing but a disappointment with the bat in the Ashes series, yet Australia has persisted with him. His bowling has been good, but the selectors have failed the team in sticking with the Queenslander. It’s time to abandon all hope and send Watson back to first-class cricket school. By ANTOINETTE MULLER.

Shane Watson came into The Ashes bullish and convinced that his promotion back to the top of the order would be what revived his career. He had scored just two tons during his eight years playing Test cricket. While he had slid up and down the order, it really isn’t an excuse. His inability to convert 50s to hundreds was glaring. Yet, the stats batting at the top of the order, especially against England, were overwhelmingly in his favour. Newly appointed coach Darren Lehmann showed faith in a man who was apparently called a “cancer in the side” by his captain. Lehmann believed in Watson and he believed that Watson was the right man for the job.

Watson has now squandered his opportunity. With the bat, he looked innocuous. He looked like he was struggling technically, especially with getting out leg-before. Watson also didn’t seem to quite understand the decision review system. Despite all the evidence suggesting he should be dropped, Australia persisted with him. One can only assume that persistence was born out of his bowling efforts. Watson was superbly economical with the ball. He managed to hold up ends so that the rest of the bowlers could have something to bowl at after the porcelain batting failed them once again.

Despite being a liability with the bat, Australia perhaps hoped that he would come good. He almost did, in Durham. He managed 68 in the first innings, batting at six. It was the first time since December last year he had managed to pass 50 runs and only the second time he’d managed more than 40. That conversion rate was prevalent even in his first-class days. During the domestic season of 2004/5, Watson scored three fifties and converted just one in First Class cricket. His overall record is far better with 47 half-tons and 18 hundreds, but he has not had time to refine his craft at domestic level. Due to Australia’s tendency to play meaningless one-day internationals, he has rarely gone back to ply his trade. In the last year, Watson has played just two first-class games. As a player with a technical deficiency, that is not acceptable.

Form is often something that has been touted as a reason for Watson’s struggles, but as one stats-guru has proven, it is simply not true. Watson is 63% more likely than other batsmen to get out leg-before at the start of the innings and 110% more likely to get out in that way later on. When there is such a glaring issue, it begs the question of why selectors persisted with him in all formats in the first place. If a player is serious about prolonging his career and sorting out issues, surely there needs to be a conversation about what the best way is to address the issue?

Watson has hit a “good run of form” twice in his career. That is, if “form” is classed as scoring a good number of runs at a decent average. During the 2009/10 season, he scored 686 runs in seven games, including one of his two hundreds and five fifties. He averaged 57.16 then. In the 2010/11 season, he scored 706 runs in seven games at an average of 54.30, with one hundred and six fifties. He certainly is capable of scoring runs, he’s just not capable of scoring them consistently.

Australia has been hit by a run of retirements and no succession plan, and it has hurt the squad. It has also meant that players like Shane Watson were not allowed the opportunity to return to the first-class fold and fix any technical issues they might have.

Dirk Nannes, writing in All Out Cricket, believes the issue is down to an experience gap in the second XI competitions. In 2009, Cricket Australia changed the way the breeding ground for the first-class structure works. Greg Chappell was in charge of Australia’s Centre of Excellence and the time and was pushing for an influx of youth. This resulted in the 2nd XI competition to be changed so that youth trumped experience.

“Old players had to make way, as the 2nd XI rules now required a team to have only three players over 23 years old. Greg’s belief was: ‘If you hadn’t made it by the age of 27, you were never going to make it… so why have them in the system?’” Nannes writes.

This has resulted in players being picked before they are ripe and selectors clinging on to any player who has any sort of experience instead of releasing them for the good of their game.

Watson is now 32. In cricketing terms, that is heading towards being on the wrong side of selection, especially if Australia’s policy is anything to go by. However, he’s not going to get any better constantly slogging it out at international level with his confidence being shot as he continues to notch up nothing but disappointing scores. If his workload of batting and bowling is managed correctly, Watson could play until he is 35, but in his current state it is unlikely. It would be best for him to give the return Ashes series in Australia a miss and return to first-class cricket to fix whatever it is that ails him so.

For the selectors, that poses the big conundrum of who replaces him. Phil Hughes seems the logical option, but he too has had technical struggles. Ed Cowan and Matthew Wade are also waiting in the wings. Whatever happens, at least Australia might have learned its lesson. Experience at international level doesn’t always equate to the best option, and form is a myth when you have so many technical flaws. DM

Photo: Australia’s Shane Watson hits out watched by England’s Matt Prior (L) during the fourth Ashes cricket test match at the Riverside cricket ground in Chester-le-Street near Durham August 10, 2013. REUTERS/Philip Brown


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