Clarke insists Watson saga no distraction
Australia's captain Michael Clarke has denied the saga surrounding Shane Watson's futile attempt to be fit for the Adelaide Test is a distraction for the team as they attempt to claim a 1-0 lead in the series against South Africa. Watson was predictably ruled out on Wednesday morning after a series of fitness tests showed he was not yet close to full readiness for the rigours of a five-day match, even if he were to play as a batsman only.
Clarke's announcement of an unchanged Australian XI for the second Test ended any doubt in the mind of the No.3 batsman Rob Quiney, who took Watson's place in Brisbane but has spent three days in Adelaide unsure of whether he would be playing or not. David Warner, too, has not been entirely certain of his spot after the national selector John Inverarity refused to guarantee it when he named Watson in a 13-man group for Adelaide. However Clarke was adamant the episode had not affected his team's focus.
"I think the intent was great that Watto plus support staff, plus the team want him back out on the park, want him playing because we know how important he is to our group as a player," Clarke said. "I just think we've given Watto every chance and we feel, support staff, selectors and Shane as well, probably feels he's a few days short of being at his best. I don't think the speculation has had any impact on the team. The guys have all gone about their work as well as they can. Rob Quiney still did all his preparation, so I don't think it's had an effect on the team."
There have been rumblings for some time of various differences of opinion between Clarke and Watson, his vice-captain, most revolving around the allrounder's choice of preparation for Test assignments and the role he is to fulfil when on them. Clarke seemed intent on scotching this particular brand of chatter, damaging as it can be to have words circulating widely that the captain and his deputy speak with something less than the same voice.
"We have a great relationship firstly, I know there's been talk of that being a bit different, but Watto and I, our friendship and our professional relationship when it comes to captain and vice-captain is as close as I can certainly ask for," Clarke said. "We spoke daily, even before we flew to Adelaide as a team, and I was kept well and truly in the loop of where he was at preparation wise. Once we got here our intent was to give Watto every single chance as a very important player and vice-captain to play in this Test match, but unfortunately we've just run out of time.
"Watto sees himself as an allrounder, he wants to be an allrounder. He knows the impact he has in this game with both bat and ball and he's a huge part of our squad when he's doing both very well. Our plans are to try to get him to 100% as quick as we can, knowing we've got eight days now before the third Test in Perth."
The other major decision Clarke and his fellow selectors had to make revolved around the balance of the bowling attack. Ultimately Clarke settled on an unchanged quartet of Peter Siddle, James Pattinson, Ben Hilfenhaus and Nathan Lyon, leaving Mitchell Starc carrying the drinks in Adelaide but favoured to be included for the third Test in Perth.
Hilfenhaus had notable technical struggles in Brisbane, his arm low and his action not as precise as it had been when he was so successful last summer. But Clarke said he felt enough improvement from Hilfenhaus and his fellow pacemen as the Gabba Test unfolded to choose them again for Adelaide. Starc's control over the red ball is improving with every innings, but it was also reasoned that the steadier Hilfenhaus will be more capable of bowling maidens on request during stretches of the Adelaide match that may be devoid of assistance through the air or off the pitch.
"We had a lot of success last summer, there was rain in Brisbane but after day one I thought the bowlers came back really well," Clarke said. "We took 14 of the South African wickets and they only took five of ours. I think we've got a good mixture of aggression but also bowlers who can bowl long spells and dry runs up if required on that wicket. Generally at Adelaide there are periods of the game where you have to bowl quite tight. As a bowling unit throughout that whole first Test we improved and I'm confident as a team we'll be better for the hit-out in Brisbane and come out and perform better.
"There was certainly talk about Starcy coming into the XI, he's performed really well for NSW, he's been bowling beautifully in the shorter form of the game and in the nets as well. I just think we feel at the moment our attack improved as the game went on in Brisbane. There were a few nerves in on day one and it was our first game together as a team for quite a while, so I think everyone will be better for that."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here