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February 9, 2013
Shane Watson is confident he has the technique to handle a middle-order position on spinning Indian pitches if he is not restored to his preferred opening position on the upcoming Test tour. Watson's new role as a non-bowling specialist batsman will provide the Australian brains trust with its biggest conundrum in the lead-up to the first Test in Chennai as they decide not only where to bat Watson, but also how to balance the team's make-up without him as a fifth bowling option.
Since his decision to temporarily give up bowling in an attempt to avoid injury, Watson has spoken of his desire to return to the top of the Test order instead of filling the No.4 role he occupied against Sri Lanka. One of the reasons Watson was moved down the order last year was to allow him to juggle his batting and bowling responsibilities more easily; now that is not a consideration, although looking ahead to the Ashes tour when he wants to bowl again, it will be relevant once more.
However, Watson's impressive form against the new ball in the past two one-day internationals against West Indies has been a timely reminder of what he can do against fast men and a hard ball, even if it is in the 50-over game. Over the next week, Michael Clarke and his fellow selectors must decide whether to reinstall Watson at the top of the order in India, which would mean splitting up one of the most successful Test opening partnerships of the past couple of years.
Since Ed Cowan and David Warner came together in the Boxing Day Test against India in 2011, they have scored more runs as an opening pair than any other combination in the world, and their partnership average of 44.59 is the best of any pairing who have opened in at least 10 innings together. By comparison, in the same time Graeme Smith and Alviro Petersen have averaged partnerships of 38.28 and Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir's figure is 32.82.
"It certainly is different batting at No.4, 5 or 6 compared to opening," Watson said. "You do know that batting through the middle order you're going to be coming in against spin the majority of the time and also reverse swing, which provides big challenges. I know that's part of what it would be to bat in the middle order but I also know that I've got the game to be able to negate that.
"If that's what the selectors and the captain and coach see as the best opportunity for me to score runs then I'm certainly willing to take that on. I've played a lot of cricket in India now in all forms of the game so I suppose I am one of the more experienced guys to be able to take on the conditions and take on the Indian bowlers. I've played a lot of cricket against the majority of their bowlers so I know them very well and I know the conditions."
Watson is one of only four members of Australia's squad who has played Test cricket in India, along with Clarke, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson. In his first Test series there in 2008, Watson was a No.6 whose bowling, and especially his ability to reverse-swing the ball, was important. He averaged 24.48 with the bat on that trip. When he returned for a two-Test tour in 2010 he opened, averaged 67.75 and scored his second - and still most recent - Test century.
"That is where I feel most comfortable, there's no doubt about that," Watson said of opening. "Even opening the batting over the last couple of nights ... I love taking on the quick bowlers with the brand new ball and challenging myself against the best bowlers in the world. That's what really gets me up and going. That certainly is the exciting thing about opening the batting.
"I'm not here to put extra pressure on Ed at all, because I know he wants to be doing as good a job as he possibly can. All I've said is the reasons why I got moved down the order was mainly to do with my bowling, to be able to get the balance exactly right. But moving forward I really don't want my bowling to get in the way of my batting."
Cowan scored his first Test century during the home summer against South Africa but despite reaching fifty two more times, he wasn't able to post another big score. But he has consistently shown that he can take the shine off the new ball and occupy time at the crease, an important role for a Test opener, and the Cowan-Warner partnership was solid during the summer.
Cowan was part of the advance group that has already arrived in India and will take part in a two-day tour match in Chennai, before the rest of the squad lands in time for a second warm-up game, a three-day contest. Watson said it was disappointing that the squad was unable to travel as one group due to the crossover with the one-day series against West Indies, but he said a jam-packed schedule meant it could be no other way.
"To think that there are different stages of the group going over, it's not a whole team going across to make our mark straight up, makes it very disappointing," Watson said. "But that's just the way the schedules have worked. You've just got to make the most of the situation. It's not ideal but it is part and parcel now of trying to fit all the amount of cricket in that there is at the moment.
"For me, I just want to play. There's no doubt you want to represent your country and I've missed quite a bit of the summer. The most exciting thing about representing your country is playing in front of your home fans, so for me I certainly would prefer to be playing here because that's what really excites me ... I'm going to be lucky enough to have a three-day tour match [in India] and I think that will be a perfect lead-in."
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets hereFeeds: Brydon Coverdale
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