Haunted Watson seeks new start
On the way to the SCG nets for their first training session ahead of the New Year's Test, Australia's batsmen walked past the motorised stretcher that had taken Phillip Hughes from the middle of the ground a little more than a month ago. There as a precaution, it also provided a reminder of how cricket has changed this summer, and how difficult it will be for the hosts to clear their minds and play on at the scene of Hughes' death.
Shane Watson has wrestled with these sights, reminders and unwanted visions as much as anyone. His concentration and technique have wavered often as he tries to push on as a batting allrounder and senior member of the team now led by Steven Smith. In Adelaide he spoke frankly of those difficulties, and a series of harried innings did little to dissuade observers from concluding that Watson's struggles went beyond his usual inconsistencies with the bat.
But a score of some merit on Boxing Day offered evidence of progress, while a hamstring injury to Mitchell Marsh bought time for Watson to consolidate without the glare of too much speculation about his place. Now he is back at the SCG, seeking to prove his value to the team once more but also to ward off the images of November 25, an experience he shared with Brad Haddin, David Warner and Nathan Lyon.
"It's the first time I've been back here since just before Phil's funeral. It was always a time that I wasn't really looking forward to, coming back to the ground," Watson said. "But in the end, enough time has sort of passed to be able to find my own personal way to be able to deal with what happened to Phil. I'm sure once I get out into the middle and playing those visions will be coming back.
"Melbourne was the first time after getting through especially the short ball that I started to feel comfortable or more comfortable again. For the first couple of Test matches it was always in the back of my mind obviously because of what I saw and trying to go through it and process what happened that day out here. Melbourne was the first time I really started to feel the confidence grew back in myself and my game to know that my instincts are going to be hopefully good enough to play the short ball well."
Watson took some succour from the way that Haddin dealt with the barrage of bouncers he faced in Melbourne, first aiming to survive Boxing Day in the company of Smith then hitting out boldly on the following morning when India maintained their unsubtle angled of short-pitched attack.
"I think just in general how Brad took on what the Indians served up to him in Melbourne was incredible," Watson said. "He's a tough man - he's not going to take a backward step, he's always going to find a way to take on the game. And Brad was out on the ground as well so we're all dealing with it in our own way after what we saw. So to be able to see Brad play the way he did and take it on was awesome."
Watson's hesitation against the short ball has added to the kind of introspection he has commonly carried to the middle of the ground. In the journal Between Wickets, the Sydney Thunder coach Paddy Upton summed him up thusly: "Shane Watson is a sensitive man with a high regard for his team-mates and an ability to be self-critical." At times this self-criticism has been more hindrance than help.
"Growing up all I wanted to do was be the best cricketer I possibly could be," Watson said. "There are positives and negatives in that. The positives are that it always drives me to want to continue to get better. But on the flip side it means I can put too much pressure on myself when I go out there. I'm always trying to find that perfect balance where I've got freedom in my mind when I go out to bat but I'm also very well prepared and I feel comfortable and confident going into the game as well.
"I've been through a few different ways of how to deal with it. I'm very lucky to have a great support network around me to be able to talk through certain times when I feel like I am putting too much pressure on myself to perform. Darren Lehmann for example has always been incredibly good to be able to talk to about my game."
This summer has then been a trial of those qualities. Watson is fitter, stronger and fresher than at any other time in recent memory. But his confidence and instinct were rocked by the loss of Hughes, and his capacity to use that freshness limited by the resultant emotional toll. It is a long summer, though, and Watson hopes now to make the SCG Test a starting point for greater returns.
"I feel I'm under pressure when I'm not scoring runs at any stage," he said. "If I'm not performing of course I'm under pressure. The thing I think about the most is to just being able to contribute to the team, not whether I'm playing or not. It's more so just being able to contribute to the team and feel like I'm not a passenger in the team. I do really want to be there to be able to contribute with bat and ball, that's what I think about the most."
The motorised stretcher was still there when Watson was among the last to leave the nets. It had not been needed.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig