Australia v West Indies, 1st Test, Brisbane, 1st day

Is time running out for Watson?

Alex Brown at the Gabba

November 26, 2009

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Shane Watson gets hit by Steve Harmison, England v Australia, 4th Test, Headingley, 1st day, August 7, 2009
Shane Watson has been out lbw too often while opening in Tests © Getty Images
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Shane Watson only ever appeared to hold a short-term lease on the Test opening position, and the landlord may soon be searching for a new tenant. Another lbw decision - his fifth in six innings as Test opener - served as further evidence of uncertain shot selection and cumbersome footwork to fast, new ball bowling, and a drop down the order could prove in the best interests of both player and team.

Watson's natural game is one of aggressive stroke-making; an instinct curbed by the discipline required at the top of the order. His three successive half-centuries in England proved beyond doubt he was of legitimate international stock, but the impression remains that he is a batsman yet to find his home in the Australian line-up.

Australia have ten Tests to finalise their batting order for the next Ashes series, and it is difficult to envisage Watson maintaining his place alongside Simon Katich over that time. Phillip Hughes, Phil Jaques and Chris Rogers all possess superior first-class opening credentials to the Test incumbent and many more lbws to Watson this series will presumably intensify their claims for a change at the top.

Thursday's dismissal to Jerome Taylor was the sixth time in seven innings across all positions Watson has been trapped leg-before in Tests. On this occasion, Taylor deceived the batsman with several away-slanting deliveries before coaxing him into shouldering arms to a ball that veered in. It was a clever piece of bowling, although one Katich managed to counter.

Australia's selectors moved swiftly to remove Hughes when his susceptibility to straight, short-pitched bowling was exposed in England earlier this year, and their approach to Watson's run of lbws will make for interesting viewing. During the Ashes, Watson appeared heavy-footed when resuming his innings after breaks in play, but on this occasion the right-hander was outmanoeuvred by Taylor's canny change of trajectory.

"I think his technique is outstanding and can definitely cope with opening the batting," Michael Husey said in defence of Watson. "He's shown it in one-day cricket and there's no reason why he can't do it in Test cricket as well. Everyone misses out, but I'm sure he will get runs in the second innings or the next Test. He can definitely handle that position."

Ricky Ponting this week hinted at his desire to see Watson eventually assume a more conventional allrounder's role, batting in the middle order and contributing with the ball. By doing so, Ponting argued, Watson would be free to bowl without having to conserve energy to open the second innings, thereby unlocking his full potential.

There remain two obvious hurdles to Ponting realising his plan for Watson: the will of the selectors and the complex issue of managing the reshuffle. Andrew Hilditch has on several occasions extolled Watson's virtues as a resident opener while, in the same breath, touting Phillip Hughes as a long-term prospect at the top of the order. Perplexing, certainly, but perhaps less so than the task of identifying an opening replacement and, if necessary, a middle order fall-guy.

Hussey seemed the man most likely for the axe but a century in his final Ashes innings and 66 at the Gabba on Thursday have presumably secured his place in the top-order for the time being. Marcus North has done little to warrant demotion in his eight Tests and, like Watson, provides Ponting with an extra bowling option when required.

Where will Watson reside in the long-term? The next few Tests will be telling.

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo

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