July 9, 2013

The Shane Watson gamble

His Test stats are a puny return for all of his brawn but Australia's new coach seems to have more faith in him than most

While Watson operates supremely well within the rigid constraints of a limited-overs game, he hasn't been able to soar in Tests © PA Photos

It was hard not to smile at Darren Lehmann's exhortation to Australia's batsmen to score lots of hundreds, coming as it did just days after he elevated Shane Watson back to the top of the order.

If there's one thing that everyone knows about the square-shouldered enigma it's that he doesn't score them, not in Test matches anyway. In his 41 games he has two, which is the same number as Harbhajan Singh and Richard Hadlee, one less than Phil Hughes and David Warner. Put another way, it took his opposite number in this series, Alastair Cook, 12 innings to go past Watto's ton total. Since the second of Watson's centuries, in Mohali in October 2010, he has walked from the crease 39 times without reaching three figures. Cook, in his last 39 innings, has made six.

It is just a fraction of the Watto mystique. Debates about his game are in part debates about aesthetics. He has a dominant physicality and a classical technique heightened by the explosive power that is the motif of the modern era. His is an abundant talent and it is also an obvious one: anyone new to the game would quickly be able to pick him out as being good at it. He just looks like he can play.

Yet aesthetics like his can be a curse: they are more superficial than the statistics are, and Watson's stats are a puny return for all of his brawn. They are also going in the wrong direction; in the last two years his career average has dropped from more than 40 to just above 35. It is a sign of Australia's callow batting that he has remained in the team.

Yet Test cricket no longer exists in isolation. With the white ball Watson has risen, and perhaps only Chris Gayle is above him as a franchise opener. He also seems better equipped to ride the predictable lulls of 50-over cricket than he does in Tests.

This deepens his enigma. He operates supremely well within the rigid constraints of a limited-over game. There is no doubt about what he has to do there. It's when he stares into the depths of Test cricket that the abyss stares back at him. Here is a place without a required rate or a Powerplay, with a tempo that moves and changes by the hour, by the session, by the day, by the series. It is an exam in which the questions are constantly rephrased.

I once watched Watson and Ponting warming up for a one-day international at the Rose Bowl. They were taking some throwdowns no more than 20 feet away. Ponting went first. He struck each ball hard but directed them differently, angling the bat in his hands to fizz the ball towards gaps in the field. Watson hit it far harder, but each shot went where the line of the ball dictated it should.

It was a small example, but one that alluded to his approach. James Anderson said this week that he felt Watson was a good opening batsman and hard to bowl to, and he's right; Watson is a daunting figure who commands the crease and wants to hit boundaries early, during the moments that the bowler feels are his by right. It's later that his problems come, when the field goes back and the mindset changes. It's a deeply curious thing: his conversion rate in first-class cricket of 18 hundreds from 46 fifties barely hints at the problem.

That Watson is Lehmann's man seems clear. With Clarke and Arthur, he slid down the order and stopped making runs altogether. His promotion is an act of faith and a belief in his promise, but he is 32, not 22. Like that other figure so beloved of England fans, Mitchell Johnson, some of the scorn Watson attracts is tacit acknowledgement that if he gets it right the consequences for England will be severe. In a summer where a Brit has won Wimbledon, stranger things have already happened.

Jon Hotten blogs here and tweets here