England v Australia, 2nd ODI, NatWest Series, The Oval July 1, 2012

Balancing act far from elementary for Watson

Shane Watson has admitted that he finds batting first a greater strain and his struggles at The Oval reiterated the problem for Australia

When asked by George Plimpton which Olympic sport he would have tried his hand at, former US president Bill Clinton offered the decathlon. "It was because," Plimpton said, "You had ten disciplines that you could concentrate on ... And it's quite evident that he has the ability to do it, too. This is a man who is able to stand and give a speech and not have you-know-who popping up in the back of his head." The you-know-who Plimpton spoke of was, of course, Monica Lewinsky.

Clinton was considered a master of compartmentalisation, a popular term among psychologists and cricketers. The ability to momentarily forget all the other various tasks, issues and worries to concentrate most clearly on the one immediately at hand is an attribute sought by many in the game, not all with the same success. Captains must divorce their leadership from their batting or bowling, allrounders one discipline from the other. All players must forget their batting or bowling when they stand in the field. At The Oval, Australia's pursuit of a truly testing total for England was undermined by Shane Watson allowing his batting to become clouded. Not for the first time.

Australia's innings began at a healthy clip, and continued to run smoothly despite the loss of David Warner and Peter Forrest. This was because Watson made a fast start, and kept pinging boundaries to keep the run-rate up and prevent the field or the bowlers from closing in completely. At the end of 20 overs, the visitors were 100 for 2, with Watson 53 from 52 balls - all set to go on to a match-shaping tally.

But from there, his innings petered out. The loss of his captain Michael Clarke did not help, but Watson failed to find gaps for boundaries, or singles, and was becalmed in the company of George Bailey, who battled to get established at the crease with no outlet for the pressure England began to impose. The stagnation of the Australia innings meant that by the time Watson was dismissed for 66, having taken another 28 balls for those 13 runs, the tally had advanced just 28 runs in 11 overs, leaving far too much ground for the middle order to catch up.

Watson's final act was a frustrated heave at Graeme Swann, held in the deep by Steven Finn, a moment that felt inevitable in the context of an innings now mired in mid-overs mud. It was indicative also, of a wider theme in Watson's game. He has admitted before that when batting first, he starts to worry about the physical toll of batting given the bowling he may have to do later, and that these thoughts inhibit his ability to keep up his earlier momentum. Only once has he made a century when batting first in an ODI. When chasing he has coshed five.

"Batting first you tend to be out in the heat and I know I might have to bowl ten overs, so it's physically more demanding"
Shane Watson

"I know in my mind that that is the case," Watson said last year of his greater comfort batting second. "One, it does take a bit of pressure off, I suppose, to know the exact score you've got to chase ... But alongside that, as well, batting first you tend to be out in the heat, and I know I might have to bowl ten overs. So it's also physically more demanding batting first, for me anyway, so that's always in the back of my mind as well."

As demonstrated by that admission, Watson is an admirably frank and transparent character. As an allrounder, he is perennially conflicted. His role in the Australia side has changed too many times to count, batting anywhere from No. 1 to No. 7, and his bowling running the gamut from taking the new ball to not using it at all. A history of injuries has forced Watson to think very carefully about his body and the limits of its exertion - he is a rare cricketer to travel the world with his own personal physio.

This background has made Watson into a most versatile cricketer and a critical part of Michael Clarke's team. But it has also served to entrench patterns into his cricket as well as his preparation for it. Watson worries about his workload every match he plays, and it has long seeped into the way he performs. Ten years into his ODI career, Watson is a far more accomplished batsman when the team bats second, his bowling duties out of the way.

The disparity between between first innings and second innings is so vast as to be worth noting by Clarke, as well as Australia's coach, Mickey Arthur. Across 83 innings batting first, Watson averages a mediocre 32.97, with the aforementioned one century and 16 half-centuries. But when batting second his mean shoots up to 57.10 across 50 innings, five times reaching 100, with 12 half-centuries. Moreover, his strike-rate improves.

For Australia to get the most out of Watson, and to salvage something from an ODI series against England that is now slipping well away from their grasp, they need to find a way of closing that gap. It is difficult to tell whether doing so requires the input of a psychologist, a physio or even a former US president, but Australia's standing as the top-ranked 50-over team in the world will remain at risk so long as the performances of their most destructive player can oscillate so wildly.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Randolph on July 3, 2012, 13:43 GMT

    Despite going missing for the entire Pakistan and SL series @5wombats continues to comment like he actually cares/has a clue about international cricket. Good for a laugh if nothing else I suppose.

  • Nicholas on July 3, 2012, 10:33 GMT

    With Warner already there opening, I think Australia could afford to shift Watson down the order, and save some of his strength for bowling (which is very useful, and doesn't have to be striking). But I don't know who to replace him with at the openers slot! As I said in earlier posts, I like someone like Clarke in at 3/4 depending on stage/situation of the innings who is stubborn rather than fierce. There's not really anyone else in the squad that should open... Conundrums conundrums once again for Australia.

  • Andrew on July 3, 2012, 0:06 GMT

    @5wombats - yet you (& others) take the bait & respond almost every time he comments!!!!

  • Andrew on July 3, 2012, 0:04 GMT

    @FreddyForPrimeMinister - point well made, it was one that Ian Chappell made on this site about 6mths ago. Watson as a test opener is a reasonable proposition MAINLY if the other batsmen is a good converter of starts, that makes a good blend. My preference has always been that once we get our top order right, Watto needs to slot down the order in Tests, for the time being he is in our top 3 by default & does a reasonable job. As for ODIs, there is a major discrepancy in Wato's batting between batting 1st & 2nd, he needs to do an Nuero-Linguistic Programming course to get the negatives out of his head, but as I said below - how many openers are averaging around 46 with a S/R above 90 in ODIs over 6 yrs atm?

  • Martin on July 2, 2012, 19:40 GMT

    We don't rate Watson. @RandyOZ nobody takes anything you say with even the smallest grain of salt.

  • Jem on July 2, 2012, 17:36 GMT

    As an English fan, I rate Watson highly and I question the constant criticism of him as an opening batsman - notably that he doesn't convert enough 50s to 100s. He currently averages 43.67 as an opener and he generally scores those runs quickly. The fact that he rarely converts those 50s into hundreds suggests that he very rarely falls to a low score. Ask yourself therefore as a number 3 or 4 batsman, what would you prefer - an opener who makes a big hundred every, say 4th innings, the rest of the time leaving you to walk in with a score on 10 or 20, facing an opening bowler with his tail up and a new ball in his hand, or one who allows you to come in with the score on 70 or 80 with an older ball that's taken a bit of a battering and 1st or 2nd change bowlers on? If he converted more of those 50s to hundreds, his average would be up in the 60s or 70s and we'd be talking about the best batsman since Bradman! His worth to the team as a batsman alone is more than the lack 100s suggests.

  • John on July 2, 2012, 16:23 GMT

    I'd say Watson should continue opening where he has success. There are parts of the Aus game which look like they need to change but Watson and Warner isn't one of them. Besides he only has to concentrate on batting while he's in there whether it be opening or at number 6. Hafeez does it for Pak

  • Geoffrey on July 2, 2012, 14:27 GMT

    @RandyOZ, don't you mean a spoonful of sugar to help the bitter medicine of defeat to go down? And yet you still dodge the point. Give credit to England where it is due (they have won the last 8 odi's they have played in a row). Don't deflect it anywhere or use well worn and tiresome excuses. How about giving the England boys some credit?

  • Andrew on July 2, 2012, 10:59 GMT

    @Carpathian - that's yours and other peoples opinion, however I struggle to recall an opener who averages better than 46 in ODIs with a S/R over 90. Not saying he is as good, but as an opener he is more consistant than Gilly was. So as far as I am aware, stats over time lead to a good indication of where a player is at. Since becoming an opener his bowling has improved (122 wickets @ a S/R of 32.5) in terms of S/R & average - whilst his economy has remained par. Name ANY allrounder in the world that has better than those figures, (btw Kallis has a better batting ave, but his S/R & bowling figures are significantly inferior). I stated back when Watson was firsted mooted to be V/C that it was too much & I do agree that he does possess brain fades (mainly in tests), but my response to you was based on you saying "...clearly can't cope with being an allrounder batting at the top of the order." Which in terms of ODIs is IMO actually not true.

  • Andrew on July 2, 2012, 10:33 GMT

    @landl47 - your comparison with Cook is not accurate/fair. Watson has only batted 86 times as an opener in ODIs (so the 153 matches is a moot stat). He has an ave of almost 46 (Cook 41.5) in that position with 3,500+ runs. Since Watto moved to the top order in 2006, only 12 batsmen have scored more runs than him in that period & only 6 of those batsmen have better averages, only ONE has a better S/Rate. Watto's performances below the top of the order are hit & miss, so I definately would NOT be dropping him down the order. I find it weird that a bloke who has just hit 60 odd & got a wicket in a losing cause is being subjected to this scrutiny. Just an aside, you compare Watto to Cook - yet at this point in time Cook has NEVER played Sth Africa in an ODI & currently only played Oz twice, so could be said to be relatively unproven (although Watto's ave against the Saffas is underwhelming). PS: I mentioned Cook's lack of matches v Oz & Saffas as I think they are benchmark sides in ODIs.

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