Watson's reinvention riddle for selectors
Shane Watson's ability to reinvent himself as a non-bowling top-order Test batsman may be tested by a return through the Sheffield Shield rather than the January ODIs.
The calf problem that ultimately dissuaded Watson from stretching himself at the bowling crease is likely to keep him out of action until the start of the limited overs-matches against West Indies in late January. This will leave John Inverarity's selection panel to decide whether to return him via that series or in a pair of Shield fixtures that will provide better indicators of the former allrounder's durability over four days ahead of the India Test tour.
The first group of players to India are expected to depart around February 9, while the final two ODIs against Darren Sammy's team are scheduled for February 8 in Sydney and February 10 in Melbourne. New South Wales' Shield games during the period will take place against Western Australia from January 24-27 and Tasmania from February 6-9.
Australia's coach Mickey Arthur said Watson was yet to formally indicate his desire to return as an opening batsman, but there can be little doubt about the vice-captain's preference given his best Test displays took place as an opener and occasionally-used bowler under Ricky Ponting, and his recent decision to give up bowling for the foreseeable future.
"I don't think Watto would mind me saying this, right at the moment Watto wants to come back as a batsman," Arthur said. "He feels every time he bats and then he gets injured bowling, he just loses a bit of momentum with his batting, which is probably fair to say. He wants to come back and bat, definitely. Once he feels his body is going well and that he feels he's cemented his batting position, we will then take another look at how we want to go with Shane in terms of bowling.
"And that's a decision only Watto can make. We'll be working very closely with him on that, because obviously Shane bowling a couple of overs is really good for us. And Shane Watson absolutely loves bowling. He still wants to bowl, but his primary focus right now is to make the team as an out-and-out batsman."
Arthur, Michael Clarke and the rest of the team hierarchy are satisfied with the present Test opening combination of David Warner and Ed Cowan, a partnership of contrasts that has reaped sturdy results even if Cowan has shown a tendency to get out after doing much of the hard work - something backed up by a mediocre average of 32.81 from 13 Tests. They also value Cowan's maturity, team ethic and leadership potential.
However Watson is expected to make a concerted push for his return to the role, hoping to open with Warner as he presently does, when fit, for Australia in ODIs and Twenty20 matches. "I guess if he's not bowling it's worth the consideration," Arthur said. "It will certainly be worth the chat. But we haven't had any discussions around that just yet.
"I still maintain that I felt No.4 was a really good fit for Shane Watson. But that was Shane Watson bowling some overs as well. We're lucky in that I think Watto can bat anywhere from Nos.1-6 in our order and has had some success there. He'll still be opening in one-day cricket. And who knows, maybe he does, maybe he doesn't but again it's probably too early to even discuss it."
Hard evidence for Watson's return to the opening position may be found in his overall record, for he has averaged better than 43 and made his only two Test centuries while walking out to face the new ball. Watson's powerful if mechanical strokeplay also appears best suited to a hard ball and a tightly packed field.
Nevertheless, his most recent returns under the captaincy of Clarke have indicated that if anything Watson has been of greater value as a thoughtful medium-pace bowler than an inconsistent batsman unable to reach three figures. In 11 Tests since Clarke took over as captain, Watson has made 528 runs at 26.40 with a top score of 88. He has also taken 19 wickets at 27. In five matches as an opener within that time Watson's returns dipped further, to 182 runs at 20.22.
These returns can be mitigated somewhat by the fact that under Clarke his level of bowling increased, occasionally leaving him bowling out the tail then walking immediately to the batting crease. But should Watson return to the top of the batting order it will be more out of the selectors' hope for more runs in his preferred position than expectation based on recent showings.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here