Australian cricket September 7, 2015

Flexible of skill, inflexible of body

Shane Watson should have played more than 59 Tests, and certainly had more impact, but injuries and his inability to take advantage of his opportunities hindered his career

One of the most baffling of modern Test careers is over. For ten years Shane Watson was in and out, up and down, hit and miss. His time in the baggy green was a decade-long study in contrasts.

He was the most muscular bloke in the team, yet the most frequently hurt. He played 59 Tests and sat out of 60, largely through injuries.

In 2005, he looked like He-Man but was scared of ghosts.

In 2010 and 2011, he won back-to-back Allan Border Medals, yet few players have been more maligned.

In 2013, he was suspended for one Test, then captain the next.

He was one of the team's finest reverse-swing bowlers, yet one of the least competent at facing it. He was a top-order batsman whose bowling kept him in the team.

Throughout it all, he was one of the nicest members of the side, yet the public thought he was arrogant and petulant.

It was these juxtapositions that vexed viewers and commentators, confused coaches and selectors. They wanted to be wilder over him, not bewildered by him.

At the heart of it all was the burden of expectation, the belief that Watson could have been so much more. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, it doesn't matter anymore. What Watson did was score 3731 runs at 35.19, and take 75 wickets at 33.68. Three times in 59 Tests he was Man of the Match, once he was Player of the Series (against Pakistan in 2009-10).

Australia's selectors liked Watson for his ability to bat anywhere. What that meant was that he ended up batting everywhere. He occupied every position from 1 to 7, in part due to his frequent injuries. Often Watson would regain fitness only to find another batsman had settled in his old place. He was therefore forced to slot in wherever a space could be created.

But in part it was because he never really made a position his own. The selectors and captain wanted Watson for his flexibility, but were frustrated by his output. They kept thinking the grass would be greener at No. 4, or No. 6, or as opener, or No. 3. Australian cricket knew it wanted Watson, but not what to do with him.

Watson's best figures came as an opener, where he averaged 40.98 from 52 innings. There are those who suggest he should therefore have stayed there. But all those statistics prove is that he peaked in 2009-10, a period that coincided with him opening. He had plenty of chances as an opener after that, but did not grab them.

Shane Watson was always an lbw candidate and he could not overcome that weakness © Getty Images

In his final year in the role, up until he was forced out by injury during the 2011-12 home summer, Watson opened in 19 innings and averaged 34.27 without a century. He had another chance as opener at the start of the 2013 Ashes tour of England, but in six innings averaged 25.66. His scores were 13, 46, 30, 20, 19 and 26.

After Australia's disastrous Cape Town Test of 2011, Watson began a remarkable run in which he reached at least double figures in the first innings of every Test for the remainder of his career - that's a 28-match stretch. And while his career featured 24 half-centuries, there were only four hundreds scattered throughout the decade.

"A worse starter than pea soup" was how Peter Roebuck often described batsmen who struggled early in their innings. Watson was the opposite, a starter who would constantly whet your appetite but leave you wondering why the main course never arrived.

In part it was due to his habit of missing balls angled in towards him: 27% of his dismissals in Test cricket were lbw. By comparison Michael Clarke was out lbw 10% of the time, Steven Smith 16% and Ricky Ponting 18%. When the ball reverse-swung Watson was particularly vulnerable. His addiction to asking for futile reviews only made him look more desperate.

Were it possible to bowl to yourself, every innings would have been Watson lbw b Watson, for with the ball he had a happy knack of finding the reverse swing that other Australians could not. It was this usefulness as an extra seam option that saved Watson's Test career on numerous occasions when he had not delivered with the bat.

But if his bowling often saved him, it just as often hurt him. He kept team physio Alex Kountouris busy, as well as his own personal physio Victor Popov. Only if they were vets in dairy country would Kountouris and Popov have treated more calf ailments.

His bowling was handy, often more for the runs he dried up and pressure he built than for the wickets he claimed himself. When he tried to avoid injury by playing as a batsman only during the tour of India in 2013, it was a disaster: he averaged 16.50 in three Tests. His mind needed to bowl, but his body needed not to bowl.

It was on that tour that Watson became Australia's 44th Test captain, standing in for the injured Michael Clarke for the final Test in Delhi. Watson had missed the previous Test, suspended in the homework saga. He had flown home for the birth of his child on the same day the suspension was announced, and told reporters he would contemplate his future as a Test player.

Often, such comments were mistakenly viewed as petulant. It was the same when he repeatedly stated his desire to open the innings after being shifted down the Test order. But Watson said these things not because he was impolite, but because he was too polite. If he was asked a question, he would answer it.

Shane Watson became Australia's 44th Test captain when he led the team in Delhi in 2013 © BCCI

He was guileless, too honest for his own good. As criticisms go, that's no bad thing. But it was the same characteristic that meant he always wore his heart on his sleeve. The disbelieving looks, the shakes of his head as he slowly trudged off after getting out, they were signs not of feeling hard done by, but of disappointment with himself.

Watson was primarily a batsman - nearly three-quarters of his Test innings were as opener or No. 3 - and by that measure he underperformed. He knows that. After he was dropped during the Ashes this year, he summed it up succinctly: "I just didn't score enough runs, it's as simple as that."

That is not to say Watson was a failure as a batsman. As an opener, he consistently gave Australia solid starts, even if the centuries didn't pile up. At his best - as in 2009 and 2010 - he could destroy an attack. He chipped in with other scores of note throughout his trips up and down the order. But nine hundreds and an average of 40 in ODI cricket would suggest that Test cricket never quite saw the best of Watson the batsman.

And so, what is Watson's Test legacy?

As an allrounder he was good, but not elite. He was not a champion bowler like Ian Botham, Imran Khan or Kapil Dev. He was not a great batsman like Jacques Kallis. He did not shape contests like Andrew Flintoff, who four times was named Player of the Series compared to Watson's one.

Enough of what he wasn't. What was Shane Watson?

As a person, he was one of the nice guys. As a player, he was a solid Test cricketer who had a couple of excellent years. Otherwise he chipped in and made contributions with bat and ball, occasionally turned matches and was a valuable jack-of-all-trades. Perhaps the closest modern comparison is Jacob Oram - a good and sometimes destructive batsman, and a useful bowler whose career was afflicted by injuries.

For a number of reasons, Watson didn't reach the Test peaks of which he might have been capable. But he was a contributor, and teams need contributors. Had he stayed fit, who knows what he could have been. And there is the most defining contrast of Watson's career: he was flexible of skill, but inflexible of body.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale