Watson ordered home to prepare for Tests
Shane Watson's special case status has been underlined by Cricket Australia's decision to unilaterally withdraw him from the latter stages of the Champions League Twenty20 in South Africa. Nonetheless, Australia's Test captain Michael Clarke has reminded Watson that he is not indispensable by bluntly pointing out that last summer's 4-0 defeat of India was achieved without him.
The conflicting demands of the 21st century game were writ large across CA's season launch in Sydney on Monday, as Test match notables including Watson, Ben Hilfenhaus, Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc were conspicuous by their absence due to the CLT20 in South Africa. Watson's early return from the event in order to prepare for the home Tests against South Africa had been whispered about for some days, before being confirmed amid a flurry of conversations around the launch.
Having taken part in the Sydney Sixers' opening victory over Chennai Super Kings in Johannesburg, Watson will play two more matches against Yorkshire and Lions before flying home ahead of the Sixers' final group game against Mumbai. He will then spend time resting and then training with the game's longest form in mind, with possible warm-up matches in the Futures League and Sydney grade competition in late October.
Watson will likely have one first-class fixture before the first Test. There is an Australia A tour match against the South Africans from November 2-4 in Sydney, and a Sheffield Shield game for New South Wales in Brisbane from November 2-5, though that fixture may be moved forward depending on the Sixers' fortunes in the CLT20.
"We are reviewing his load and circumstance very closely ... I think it's reasonably well known that it's likely he won't see the tournament out," CA chief executive James Sutherland said. "We're concerned about Shane. His injury record is unfortunate and what that tells us is that we need to monitor him and manage him very carefully and we are.
"I don't know the specifics but the priority will be for him to get himself right as possible. That's one, to give him a little bit of a break, then give him a little bit of therapy and whatever else he needs. But then also to really focus on getting him right to play Test cricket which he hasn't played for a long time - which most of our players haven't played for a long time ... give him the opportunity to play a Shield game and at least play with the red ball."
Watson broke down with a hamstring injury in November last year during a Test tour of South Africa, and his subsequent recovery took so long - setback by a calf complaint - that he did not play in any of the home Tests against New Zealand and India. Clarke said that while he wanted to avoid a repeat scenario this summer, he said Watson had to be performing strongly to keep his spot in the Test team, irrespective of his feats during the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
"Watto didn't play one Test last summer, so we don't want that to happen again, we want to manage him as well as we can, but in saying that Watto's no different to any other player, he's got to be performing to be picked in that team," Clarke said. "We beat India 4-0 without him last summer, he is a big player for Australian cricket, but he needs to be performing."
Stuart Clark, the Sixers' general manager, expressed his frustration at the decision. ''We're disappointed by it all. They want Shane to prepare for Test cricket. I understand those reasons - I just wish someone had told me this 15 months ago,'' Clark told The Sydney Morning Herald.
''Cricket Australia made it very evident when we said what are the value in Australian players [to us]? They said they can play cricket in the Champions League. That was obviously not conveyed to the high-performance team who don't give two hoots about the Champions League.''
Australia's management of players coming out of the CLT20 into Test series has been fraught with problems in the past, most notably Michael Hussey and Doug Bollinger having all of two days to prepare for the first Test in India in 2010 following their time at the tournament with Chennai Super Kings. This year CA have sent the bowling coach Ali de Winter to the event in order to monitor the likes of Hilfenhaus, Starc, Cummins and Watson, also commissioning him to thrust a red ball into their hands to prepare for the summer to come.
"We've got Ali de Winter over there, I know they're bowling with a red ball at training, bowling longer spells," Clarke said. "That's the thing where it is so difficult for a bowler compared to a batter. Bowling four overs in a day compared to coming back and playing a Test match where you've got to bowl 30 overs in a day - no wonder guys get injured.
"So we're trying to manage it as well as we possibly can. Whether we like it or not, that's the way the game's gone, Champions League is here to stay, IPL is here to stay, it's just about trying to manage individual players. The priority is, first Test of the summer, trying to get your best XI players onto the field."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here