When Watson was great
Not so long ago, I was talking over lunch to a friend, who informed me about the start of a new relationship. When I asked about how it started, they replied that the pair had got together through a conversation that began with an argument over Shane Watson.
While that mention may not exactly be a portrait in the Long Room at Lord's, Watson's place in Australian life and cricket memory is assured. There has been no better conversation, argument, or as in the above case, relationship-starter, in the national team, even more so in an era defined by safe, corporate-friendly figures rather than full-blooded and three- dimensional characters. Watson did dally in the former, but his sheer humanity, emphasised by the lbws, the injuries and the infinite - but ultimately finite - promise brought him out from under the batting helmet.
That said, most of Watson's infuriating moments and failings came about in the Test match sphere. It would be harsh to label him anything but a great of the limited-overs forms, and realistic to say that he is the best all-round cricketer Australia has ever fielded in gold, green or T20 black. His career short-form figures would be outstanding enough as a batsman or seam bowler, but together, they stand out more than his front pad on a Test match afternoon.
Of the ten batsmen who sit ahead of him on Australia's ODI run-making list, only Adam Gilchrist scored more quickly, and only four have more centuries. He also sits eighth on the ODI wickets tally. Only Steve Waugh (fifth and sixth in Australia's batting and bowling charts respectively) stands any comparison to this, at inferior averages. As a T20 player, the sample is far smaller, but Watson still sits at second and first as a batsman and bowler respectively. Even in the current World T20, he has opened both batting and bowling.
Watson was not without his faults in the limited-overs arena, for it is not as if his Test match shortcomings suddenly disappeared. He could be ponderous between the wickets, get bogged down after a flying start, or be slow to move in the field, once finding himself caught between the stumps and a venomous Michael Clarke shy. But the limited-overs formula restricted chances for bowlers to arrow in at his problem areas, while also simplifying the task in Watson's mind. Pointedly, he possessed an enormously better record batting second than first.
Invariably, Watson is compared to Jacques Kallis, and inevitably falls short. Yet, in ODIs, there is a justifiable argument for preferring Watson, whose runs arrived at an average of 40.54 but a strike rate of 90.44, as opposed to Kallis's 44.36 and a plodding 72.89. As bowlers, there is no splitting them: 168 at 31.79 and a strike rate of 38.4 versus 273 at an identical average and 0.9 extra balls per wicket. This is all without mentioning the World Cup ledger: Watson two, Kallis nil. In T20 matches, Kallis never really established himself as an international concern, while Watson put together a record as domineering as any. The South African's advice helped Watson find the rhythm to gain his place in India this month.
This is perhaps one of the more underrated elements of the Watson story. He famously supercharged his international career via the inaugural IPL, and was long considered the perfectly skilled cricketer for T20. Yet it is not as if he was raised on the game, as Kohli, Root or Warner have been. Though only 34, Watson started his international career as early as the 2002 tour of South Africa, and was in line to go to the 2003 World Cup until he succumbed to one of many back complaints.
Back then, Watson was a cricketer of brawn with the ball, and of bowling machines with the bat, his powerful but robotic technique leading to injuries in the field and frustrations at the batting crease. He has admitted that in his early years he simply wanted to bowl as fast as possible, without thoughts of swing, seam or changes of pace. The subtleties took time to settle in a mind that was both ambitious and impatient for success.
Four years after his debut, Watson was still a cameo performer in a seasoned and strong Australian side, but his first glimpse of something more was provided by an experimental opening berth at the DLF Cup in Malaysia in September 2006. He dropped back to the middle order and the fringes of the team when Matthew Hayden won back his place at the top, but contributed handily to the following year's World Cup victory, and from there, began to grow.
Between 2008 and 2011, Watson had barely a single poor series, and plenty of great ones. He was a mighty component of the 2009 Champions Trophy victory, and in 2011, seemed primed for a similarly major role at the World Cup when he clouted an unbeaten 161 to anchor a steep chase against England in Melbourne, shortly before the tournament. Watson did well enough at the Cup, but was unable to bend the tournament to his will in the way some, not least his captain, friend and ally Ricky Ponting, had hoped.
A little of the residual frustration was taken out on Bangladesh in Dhaka two weeks after India lifted the Cup - 15 sixes in a thunderous 185 not out stood as the world record until 2013, some achievement in an era of bulbous bats and shrunken boundaries. From that point, Watson's 50-over returns were clouded by further injuries, occasional captaincy, and differences with Michael Clarke and Mickey Arthur, among others.
He did, however, save his T20 best for a World T20, coached by Arthur in 2012. For a time, it appeared that Watson would carry Australia to the title all on his own, whether with bat or ball. By the semi-final against the West Indies, it appeared as if his team-mates had rather got used to it, and when Watson was out cheaply in the final two games, Australia faded meekly. When he could not reach double figures at the next edition in 2014, George Bailey's team were swiftly eliminated.
Most of these matches and series have also faded, leaving many to think primarily in terms of Watson's Test failures rather than his limited-overs prowess. But one memory deserves to be indelible - that of Watson staring down a fiery Wahab Riaz at Adelaide Oval in last year's World Cup quarter-final. A sequence of extraordinary theatre, for which the two combatants were wrongly fined, it might easily have been someone else under fire: Watson was dropped mid-tournament, then hastily recalled in circumstances that still remain somewhat unexplained.
Whatever the reason, Mitchell Marsh was deemed insufficient in the allrounder role, and it is to that quandary Australia must return, now that Watson is exiting the stage. To have a cricketer capable of ten strong and sensible overs, yet also able to peel off a hundred at the top of the order is to be a most fortunate selector, and neither Marsh, nor James Faulkner has so far shown that capability. In time, that may become a more lively argument, but it is unlikely to be as satisfying as the great many Watson gave us.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig