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October 25, 2013

Shane Watson and the art of self-analysis

Russell Jackson
Shane Watson: we'll hear it from him  © Getty Images
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For cricket fans of a certain disposition there is nothing more appealing than a headline that starts "Shane Watson sits down and discusses his struggles… " So obviously I found myself immediately drawn to this interview with Australia's most introspective cricketer. It also prompted me to conduct my own little statistical analysis.

In it Watson uses the word "team" only once, "we" (in the context of the Australian team) gets an airing on three occasions, while variants of "I", "my" and "me" are trotted out 84 times. I guess a certain amount of the skew here can be attributed to normal speech patterns and the fact that he was being asked to talk about himself. Nevertheless Watson's penchant for self-analysis, often at the exclusion of his team-mates, remains intriguing. If you're the kind of sports follower who groans every time a player slips into management-speak and rote "team-first" clichés, Watto is kind of refreshing in his own way.

Maybe this self-referential streak is not entirely strange; humans are prone to self-interest and sportspeople doubly so. During the recent Ashes series, Gideon Haigh saw Watson "approaching his continued underperformance at Test level with an intensity that prevents him remedying it". He really should have played golf or tennis, individual sports that are a perfect platform for self-diagnosis, self-flagellation and self-help. If he were an artist or film director, maybe this propensity for navel-gazing would be more appealing, productive even. Yet within the environs of team sport it paints him into a corner, and Pat Howard's observation that he is a team player "sometimes" is a hard image to shake.

In virtually any interview Watson will couch his comments in the language of a self-help guru and often seeks to establish a narrative of redemption or enlightenment. Of his suspension during the homework-gate episode, Watson noted, "You have to live and learn and hopefully become a better person out of that, and I certainly have." Then in the lead-up to the Ashes summer in England he claimed, "I know I've got it in me", as though at 32 years of age and a decade deep in his international career, there were vast resources within that remained untapped.

Such an insular approach to life is sometimes just the lot of the professional sportsperson. It might not necessarily mark him out as the most likeable cricketer but it makes him an endlessly interesting one. To anyone who talks, writes or thinks about the game he's an endless stream of banter and material. Cricket discourse will definitely be the less flavoursome for his eventual departure.

One of the interesting things about Watson's struggles at Test level in the past two years is that for all his obsessive preparation and training, he has possessed in that time some major technical flaws that have hindered his batting progress. With this in mind, the other primary point of interest out of the Daily Telegraph interview was that Watson apparently harbours coaching aspirations when his playing days are over. That seems almost perverse, doesn't it?

In virtually any interview Watson will couch his comments in the language of a self-help guru, and he often seeks to establish a narrative of redemption or enlightenment

For all of his inward-looking behaviour, it's as though Watson lacks the self-awareness to know how the concept of "Coach Watson" would sound to the vast majority of those who have followed his career. Maybe I'm wrong on that, though. Amol Karhadkar talks here of Watson's recent efforts to help team-mates out with their preparation in India. Perhaps fatherhood will be a catalyst for Watson to look in places other than the mirror for answers. "It did provide a hell of a lot of clarity. Now I've got more important things to worry about" is his own take.

I also wonder about the combination of factors that have contributed to Watson's successes in limited-overs cricket in the very same periods in which he has struggled in the Test arena. Short-form cricket provides him with few genuine unknowns; a 50- or 20-over block in which he can run at his own tempo. It's where his game finds its most natural expression, and frankly he's pretty good at it. With only an innings per side his successes are amplified in importance in the context of the result, and with so many fixtures crammed in, failures are far less likely to catch on in the imagination of his detractors.

He has often spoken of a preference for opening the batting at Test level because it doesn't necessitate reaction to game situations as much as a middle-order position does. Perhaps his successes in limited-overs cricket, where he can trade in boundaries and belt his way out of trouble, has allowed bad habits to creep in. His long-form batting has suffered from sloppy running between the wickets and a failure to feed his partner regular strike. This is not to mention Watson's infamous fascination with the Decision Review System. Of the latter he at least now has an awareness and sense of humour. The fact that at least one avenue to his potential lbw dismissal (Hot Spot) won't be used in the upcoming Ashes summer will surely unburden him more than any other player.

Ricky Ponting once noted that Watson "works as hard on his game and his fitness as any cricketer I know", yet the physiology and psychology involved in batting for such long periods still troubles him. When talking though his performance in the recent Oval Test, Watson said, "Deep down I was doubting whether I had the game to be able to perform and bat especially for really long periods of time". Watson's failures at Test level are now so well documented that with each successive Test, the negative vibes that surround him seem to attract compound interest. We all delight in adding it to the handsome principal.

As ever I'm not too sure what shape Shane Watson's Test career will be in by the end of this Australian summer, but one thing is for certain: he'll tell us how it makes him feel.

Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sports in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian and the Wasted Afternoons. He tweets here

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Keywords: Allrounders

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by tamperbay on (October 29, 2013, 4:47 GMT)

I strongly disagree with the author. I actually LIKE it that Watto refers to himself when he is talking about himself. That is a central element of Gestalt psychology which I think is very healthy!

Like @MrKricket when Clarke refers to himself in the 3rd person this gives me the impression that he is a bit indulgent or pretentious, but I like it a lot more than when people talk about themselves in the "second person", which unfortunately has become the norm in the of speech of a lot of people.

eg Q: "How do you feel about the loss?" A: "It was tough. You try your best, but thats all you can do". Talking in the second person like this (ie "you") assumes that everyone has the same feelings and reactions, while talking in the first person (ie "me" and "I") is more honest and actually assists people express their true feelings. At the same time it also respects that other people might feel and think differently. Try it yourself!

Posted by MrKricket on (October 27, 2013, 8:06 GMT)

At least he doesn't do a Michael Clarke and "third person" himself. As in: Clarke said "What's best for Michael Clarke and what's best for the Australian team is a matter for Michael Clarke and only Michael Clarke can answer that question." I've never heard Watson talk like that.

Posted by   on (October 26, 2013, 21:24 GMT)

It's difficult to like Shane Watson. The product of a privileged private school background, given many chances to prove himself, the odd flicker of talent, the ungracious attitude. And the knowledge because of his history, he'll be given far more opportunities. Is it any wonder people don't like him?

Posted by ball_boy on (October 26, 2013, 17:52 GMT)

Watson partnering Pietersen.Oh what a match up.Tempers may flare but both firing at both ends will have the media in a frenzy.Cut the man some slack.There is none else to replace him Aus does not have the riches to back up when they feel irritated with Watson.The fiasco and the long term effect of not allowing Simon Katich is well documented.True players with sights only om themselves have always been there these players add colours to the game and some are greats themselves-Javed Miandad,Sunil Gavaskar[self importance]

Posted by brainvin on (October 26, 2013, 17:40 GMT)

A very poor article specifically targeted to get rid of Shane Watson, feels as if these writers are fed by Michael Clarke. These people have to understand that Shane Watson is one of best players currently playing n there were instances where the players were happy when Watto captained in the final test against India. He is a confidence player n Shane Warne gave him that confidence during IPL which has transformed him as a player n now Clarke n writers like these are destroying it.

Posted by testcric4ever on (October 26, 2013, 15:19 GMT)

'In virtually any interview Watson will couch his comments in the language of a self-help guru, and he often seeks to establish a narrative of redemption or enlightenment'

I often wonder if sports stars wrote articles about bloggers and journos what conclusions they's draw.

'In virtually every article, these 'experts' of the game - who wouldn't have a job without us - pick out a few things from our game and draw lazy conclusions laced with a rather negative undertone and present it as an insightful critique.'

Posted by tickcric on (October 26, 2013, 14:28 GMT)

Nice artcle Russell. Frankly, I have always liked Watson. Perhaps because I can relate to him... Man, this guy came to international cricket some 11 years ago and he is still finding himself despite being hardworking (there's Ponting's testimonial what more do we need)! Got to acknowledge his dedication. Now thatwe have made enough fun of him and that finally he has played a test innings befitting him, I hope he has some successful years before he calls it a day.

Posted by Reececonrad on (October 26, 2013, 11:00 GMT)

I know he hasn't performed to his talent, but cut the guy a break, there been hundreds of articles and videos badgering this guy.When sportsmen don't perform we want to know why and often try to create flaws or characteristics that are not there, we tend to make them into a villain, if he scored 20 hundreds at an average of 50 none would say anything at all. He has recognised that he has flaws and he is trying to work on them, just stop trying to find things that aren't there.

Posted by sifter132 on (October 26, 2013, 7:15 GMT)

Not sure I buy the implication that a player with technical flaws would automatically make a poor coach. In my view coaches are too often the big names with perfect technique and imposing records. Wasim Akram as bowling coach would be an example, how does a man with such prodigious talent know what it's like to struggle to get the ball to swing? How could he teach it when it came so easily to him? That's why I thought Graeme Hicks's appointment to Australia was excellent. He's a man who struggled to impose himself at the top level, the perfect man to teach players who are in the same boat with his experience of failing. It may not be as inspirational as if Sachin Tendulkar were your batting coach, but I think it's just as much chance of being successful.

Posted by   on (October 26, 2013, 6:48 GMT)

cricket is not a true team game in the way football codes are. or rowing. it's 11 individuals with different jobs to do, and having them all at the top of their game, whilst contributing to healthy team spirit, is as good as you can get.

the alternative is just Cowanism that spouts about intangible contributions to team harmony as if they were an alternative to taking wickets or making big scores.

the point about technical analysis is well made. Brett Lee was the same. i'm gonan bowl flat out. i'm gonna bowl variation. and round and round. combination of too many media stories and an underlying self-doubt. in my untrained opinion...

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