All-round dilemma for Watson, selectors
Shane Watson will be pushing against the prevailing tide of Australian cricket should he choose to abandon bowling in his search for a way out of the maze of injuries that have blighted his sporadic Test career. In the aftermath of the Boxing Day Test, in which he aggravated a calf niggle he had taken into the match, Watson admitted for the first time that he was seriously considering recasting himself as a batsman to play more consistent sequences for Australia.
The national selectors and the team performance manager Pat Howard have made it patently clear their preference is for Watson to remain an allrounder, in keeping with a policy to push for cricketers as widely skilled as possible. This has been underlined by the selection of the Victorian Glenn Maxwell for the New Year's Test at the SCG, where his assortment of skills will contrast with the one-note batting role Watson may yet turn to.
"At the end of the Test series Shane will have the opportunity to sit down with a few of us and have that discussion," Howard said. "The selectors have been very keen on having people who are multi-skilled across the board. You've seen many of our players bowl this summer, even the wicketkeeper. I think the selectors are open to discussion with any player regarding how they see they can get the best out of them. If Shane Watson opens that dialogue he's free to do that, and to be judged on those performances.
"Very much the selectors do want that multi-skill ability. That's not just about Shane Watson, they love people being able to bat, bowl, field, bring some leadership to the table, and having more than one skill. When the selectors sit down they do look at that ability, but also they look at the mix as well. If Shane or anybody wants to be a batsman only, well somebody else has got to be able to take up the overs.
"That's something selectors think about when they put up a squad of 13 but also when they put up 11. How can they make sure that Michael Clarke, Mickey Arthur, the selectors and the team have a bowling armoury that can work together and deal with a James Pattinson situation from Adelaide. We got exposed there, obviously, it had flow-on effects for Perth and probably flow-on effects afterwards."
The push towards cricketers of greater versatility may presently be linked to reducing the chances of injuries to the squad's younger fast bowlers, but has its origins in the West Australian Sheffield Shield teams of the 1970s led by John Inverarity and his deputy Rod Marsh, now the senior selection figures on the national panel. The emphasis on batsmen who could bowl and vice versa was pronounced enough to mean even wicketkeeper Marsh bowled his quota in the nets. Howard also noted that at 37, the highly valuable Michael Hussey could not be expected to bowl as much as he has in recent times, leaving further slack to take up.
"The reliance on Mike taking at 37 years of age a lot of overs is something we can't rely on," Howard said. "Being able to do the odd over here and there we've seen Dave Warner bowl, so that multi-skill is being pushed. I know Usman Khawaja bowled in the Chairman's XI and got a wicket against Sri Lanka. So that message is getting through from the selectors. Those who work hard on their fielding, work hard on their other attributes … we want that ability to bat deep, we want batsman to bowl, and John Inverarity and Mickey Arthur and the selection panel do drum that in."
Typically, Watson has been reluctant to play when picking up injuries, even minor ones. Yet in Melbourne he played, his calf niggle perhaps overshadowed by the greater doubt surrounding Clarke's hamstring and the presumption that Watson would take up the leadership of the team if the captain failed to prove his fitness.
"It was a niggle, nothing more than that," Howard said. "If you're a professional sportsman you have niggles you have going in. He had a niggle, so did a lot of guys, but it did get worse during the Test match. That [Watson not playing] was a possibility. But we know that he can contribute, we know he had a heavy workload in Hobart, but so did Peter Siddle, so did Mitchell Starc, and we knew from the lesson from Adelaide to Perth, taking a group of guys all with high injury risks, you can't take everybody in together."
Howard also sounded a note of gratitude for the selectors' fortitude in ignoring public pressure not to rest Mitchell Starc from the Melbourne Test after his five-wicket haul to close out the first Test in Hobart. Mitchell Johnson and Jackson Bird were instead included as fresh pacemen and shared 10 wickets between them as Sri Lanka were routed on two and a half days.
"The fast bowling discussion was a very big one in the lead-up to this Test," Howard said. "There'll be differing views through that process but there's the opportunity to give the selectors a bit of a wrap regarding that. They held firm and I think many of you would say there's been some benefit to that process, so I think on reflection it's been a reasonably positive couple of days.
"Injuries are a difficult part of the world game at the moment that we've all got to try to be very good at, we want to be the best at it, and we've got a long way to go. It's one of those things where if we try to play with 11 [fit] players it makes a significant difference to the outcome of the game."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here