October 25, 2013

Shane Watson and the art of self-analysis

The insularity of his approach might not necessarily mark him out as the most likeable cricketer but it makes him an endlessly interesting one

Shane Watson: we'll hear it from him © Getty Images

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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