No Hughes is good news for Watson
Shane Watson is fast learning that friendly fire isn't always so friendly. Having spent the majority of his career pursuing a Test berth, Watson now finds himself in the uncharted waters of incumbent status entering an Australian summer - and the internal challengers are circling.
From the moment he was crowned Australia's new Test opener at Edgbaston earlier this year, Watson expected the likes of Phillip Hughes, Phil Jaques and Chris Rogers to launch campaigns to usurp the throne. What he hadn't counted on was the overwhelming push from his adopted state's media to see him replaced with Hughes, his New South Wales team-mate, for the opening Test against West Indies, beginning at the Gabba on Thursday.
With anonymity no longer his ally, Watson is coming to terms with life with a bullseye on his back. Half-centuries in each of his first three Test innings as opener might have afforded him a degree of breathing space but, cast as "the other man" in a regional love-affair with the swashbuckling Hughes, the prevailing mood is that Watson is a man pursued.
"That was definitely interesting," Watson said of the pro-Hughes campaign. "I didn't score as many runs as I would've liked during the Ashes, but I was able to make a pretty good fist of it. There has been a lot of pressure there from the media pushing Phil Hughes, but in the end I've got the opportunity. I've just got to be performing anyway, whether it's Phil Hughes or Phil Jaques or any other batsman in Australia pushing me. But this is certainly all a new experience for me."
Watson's place at the top of the order is not only a matter of debate in the nation's newspapers. Andrew Hilditch and Ricky Ponting have in the past week offered contrasting forecasts of his long-term place in the side - Hilditch extolling his opening credentials, Ponting viewing him in a more traditional allrounder's role.
''Down the track, we all think that with Shane's style of play, he would be suited down in the middle order and being able to give us 15 to 20 overs as well,'' Ponting said. ''That's the cricketer I always thought he would be. He can bat pretty much anywhere in the order which is terrific for us, but the difficulty that presents is how many overs are you going to push to get out of him knowing that he's going to have to bat at the start of the second innings?"
Ponting's point is a salient one. Over the past two years the world has witnessed the disastrous effects modern cricket scheduling has had on the game's leading allrounders - Andrew Flintoff, Dwayne Bravo and Jacob Oram have all spent extended periods on the sidelines with injury - and Australia would be reckless to expose Watson to a similar fate.
Watson, of course, is all too aware of the physical demands placed upon allrounders. Back, shoulder and hamstring problems were among the litany of injuries that prevented him from realising his potential for much of the past decade, but a revised training regime has given him confidence that the worst might be behind him.
Speaking at the Allan Border Field in Brisbane this week, Watson had ample opportunity to reflect upon the myriad twists his career has taken in recent years. It was at that facility three years ago that he sustained the Ashes-ending hamstring injury that jeopardised his international career. It is at the same practice field he now prepares to entrench himself as a first-picked member of the Test side, having survived and thrived through one of the most demanding years in the history of Australian cricket
"I wasn't in a great place there for a while," he said. "I thought I was going to have to give up being an allrounder. For me to play for Australia, I thought it was going to take me a lot longer to get where I wanted to go. Being an allrounder gave me an opportunity to narrow the number of people you're up against. I wasn't really thinking about quitting cricket, because I knew I had my batting, but deep down I knew the things I could achieve as an allrounder.
"I'll have to be clever about how I go about things, there's no doubt. Being an allrounder and seeing the unfortunate thing that's happened to Freddie and other allrounders around the world, it just rams home the importance of getting my body just right. For me to be able to get through the last six months of cricket and to feel really good and fresh after it, it's been very rewarding to know the things I've done especially over the last two years are paying big dividends. It puts my mind at ease because at a certain stage I was doubting whether I was ever going to get an opportunity to see how good I could be on the international stage."
And, so, to the next phase of his career. Having secured his place in the Test XI, Watson is now refining his technique to withstand the challenges posed by the game's elite new-ball bowlers. His successes in England were tempered by a tendency to lose his wicket shortly after breaks in play - either trapped on the crease or playing around his front pad - and Watson is working to sharpen his footwork before his duels with Jerome Taylor, Dwayne Bravo and co.
"It is such a big challenge opening the batting and just playing a lot of cricket back to back," he said. "It definitely has been a work in progress to work on certain aspects of my game. Some have come along quicker than I expected, but a few other little things creep in like the mental side of switching on and switching off every ball and not coming back from a break and getting out. That's the continual challenge and the thing I love about cricket. I feel that's a step along the way to making me a better player."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo