Australia in India, 2012-13 March 12, 2013

Where to for Watson?

Shane Watson is Australia's vice-captain but he needs to lift his game off the field and on it
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The so-called homework task set by Mickey Arthur last week required a great amount of reflection from Australia's players on the way they and the team were performing. Few members of the squad had as much cause for self-assessment as Shane Watson. That is even more so now, after his axing from the side and subsequent departure from the tour. Put simply, Watson needs to lift his game both off the field and on it. He is the vice-captain, but whether he remains so is yet to be seen.

It must be said that the severe penalties handed out to Watson and three other players were not solely the result of failing to complete Arthur's task. Throughout the tour the attitude from the wider playing group has been lax. Players have missed appointments with the team physio, arrived late for team meetings, worn the wrong uniforms - there have been all manner of minor infractions that built up to the team management saying "no more".

But that is all the more reason for the vice-captain to help lead a young side by example. He should have been proactive. He should have been doing everything in his power to help the side lift. If part of that was coming up with ways he and the team could improve, he should have been brimming with ideas. Michael Clarke didn't forget about the task or misunderstand when it was to be completed.

In the past year the Test team has lost three senior men: Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin. That leaves Clarke with an enormous burden and there is a feeling that Watson has not helped him carry it adequately. Perhaps in the homework task he could have highlighted his leadership as an area for improvement. Perhaps not completing the task in an embarrassing week for the team said it all.

After the players were informed of their fate, Watson flew home to Australia to be with his pregnant wife. There is no problem there. But when asked by journalists to comment on the penalty, Watson could have accepted the decision with grace and conceded that he had erred. He could have said Test cricket remained his priority. Instead he called it a "very harsh" punishment and said he would weigh up his future at home. They were not the words of a leader of men.

Watson's relationship with Michael Clarke has never been strong. They are not enemies, but nor are they close confidants. On Tuesday, Pat Howard, Cricket Australia's team performance manager, alluded to "issues" between Clarke and Watson. Upon arriving home in Sydney, Watson said things were "going really well" between himself and Clarke at the moment. His comments in Chandigarh won't have helped that.

If Watson wants to weigh up his future, he would do well to consider his past. And here is a fact that should jolt him: in the past two years, Rob Quiney is the only top-six batsman with a worse Test batting average for Australia. In that time - which corresponds with Watson becoming vice-captain - he has played 13 Tests and averaged 25.20 with the bat. He's made four half-centuries in 24 innings. No hundreds.

Consider some of the players with better batting averages than Watson in that two-year period: Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja, Ed Cowan, even James Pattinson. It might seem disingenuous to look only at his batting, for Watson has also collected 19 wickets in that time. But his primary role in the side is as a top-order run scorer. On that alone he is failing to deliver. Watson's experience is valuable but he is not an indispensable member of the team.

It could be argued that Watson's struggles have also coincided with his move down the order. The only two centuries in his 40-Test career came as an opener. But in his time as vice-captain and opener, he scored 192 runs at 20.22 on tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa. A calf injury then ruled him out of the 2011-12 home summer and allowed Cowan and David Warner to settle in as a consistent opening pair.

By the time Watson returned for the next tour of the West Indies, the opening spots were taken and he had to make do at No. 3. His slide down the order continued to No.4 when Phillip Hughes rejoined the side at first drop after Ricky Ponting's retirement. And the lack of runs that began when he was still opening continued. He had looked in reasonable touch in the first two Tests in India but could not survive for an hour in any one of his four innings.

The Mohali Test might have provided some relief for Watson, for it was at this venue, two and a half years ago, that he scored his last Test hundred. Now he won't get the chance to reprise it. Instead, he will be at home, waiting for the birth of his first child. And thinking about his cricketing past and future. He will look back at a disappointing Indian tour, and at an as-yet unfulfilled Test career.

His injury-prone body has not helped. Since his Test debut, he has missed 51 of a possible 91 Tests, the majority through injuries. For now, he has given up bowling in an effort to stay fit, but he has never shown any inclination to give his body a rest by reducing his non-Test commitments, the IPL for example. Chances are he won't be back in India for the fourth Test, but will be for the IPL that follows.

After that, who knows? But if Watson didn't have time for reflection last week, he certainly does now.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Barnesy4444 on March 14, 2013, 13:54 GMT

    Mike Hussey states he only had a few days to prepare for an Indian tour in 2010. He performed badly, and that poor form continued for the next series and it nearly cost him his place. How will Watson prepare for the 2 Ashes? IPL? One score of 80 against Sri Lanka at home is all he will have in 8 months. Punter did use him much better though, opener and only a few overs. Clarke has misused him. I have never seen Watson as Vice Captain material I'm afraid.

  • jwfa on March 14, 2013, 12:26 GMT

    I think Watson has a serious problem with authority. Maybe he should not play again for Australia. His comments on arrival do nothing to advance his case for reinstatement . He has obviously learnt nothing. Let him go.

  • dummy4fb on March 14, 2013, 8:24 GMT

    Shane Watson now faces a fundamental problem: he is an all-rounder attempting to pass as a specialist batsman. Whilst I can still recall the prolific run scoring he contributed as an opener (mainly against pace bowling, but nevertheless high quality pace bowling) I have always felt Watson is a confidence player in the same vein as Mitchell Johnson-top bowling leads to top batting. And really, why wouldn't it? Batting is a cruel art, with that nagging possibility of being subjected to a jaffer on your first ball faced; or the (now mostly alleviated) possibility of copping a shocking lbw before you've got a start. It's little wonder that for Watson top quality bowling was a safety net that gave him the mental confidence to bat so beautifully a couple of years ago. I remember lamenting the news that Watson would no longer bowl, because I felt there was a good chance he would no longer bat as well. Here's hoping the joy of a new child (may he/she be healthy) will symbolize a dad's rebirth.

  • elsmallo on March 14, 2013, 1:20 GMT

    I felt sorry for Watson initially - one can hardly argue that he's not worked hard to represent Australia given the long months he's spent out of the game. Long hours in, I'd assume, some considerable physical pain, not to mention disappointment and frustration at not being able to play. I'd probably take this punishment as a slap in the face given the injury history alone - he probably feels he's had a hard time and his 'unfulfilled' Test career will be a source of regret for him as much as any. The numbers don't paint a great picture, however, and in a way he sums up Australia's essential current problem - the players just aren't quite as good now as they once were. I wonder if this is something we can blame on 20/20 - has the Sheffield Shield, for so many years lionised here in England as the source of Australia's many world-class cricketers - mentally, technically and physically tough players - been tarnished by the easy success formula of 20/20?

  • CoverDrive888 on March 14, 2013, 0:47 GMT

    Couldn't agree more with Bob Young. Dropping the vc because the team as a whole is a bit sloppy on stuff that would only be of concern in the military just reflects on teh quality of the management team.

  • dummy4fb on March 13, 2013, 15:04 GMT

    The author does raise some good points but still there is a nagging feeling that he's avoiding the elephant in the room. Although, as a New Zealander I suppose if this keeps up a few more Tests might go our way ;)

  • big_al_81 on March 13, 2013, 11:11 GMT

    Nailed it again in this article. Spot on throughout. And for those saying how indispensable Watson is, perhaps you could engage with Watson's average as a top order batsmen a) overall and then b) in the last two years. It seems significant that several of Watson's defenders are Indian and I fear that Watson's undoubted excellence in short form cricket has blinded many to his obvious failings at Test level. With 2 centuries from 40 tests several other nations would have given up on the batting experiment by now. IF he has a test future, and I think he could, it's back at 6 or 7 as the best all-rounder Australia currently have.

  • dummy4fb on March 13, 2013, 10:57 GMT

    true that! but i think its too harsh and deep down everyone knows what he is capable when at his best. So certainly losing him from the test squad would be naive step towards disaster

  • CustomKid on March 13, 2013, 10:06 GMT

    If this means Watson never plays another test I'll be a happy man.

  • Behind_the_bowlers_arm on March 13, 2013, 8:40 GMT

    Its a sign of the low ebb that Australia's batting stocks have reached that they have bent over backwards to accomodate a batsman who is rarely fit and has averaged in the 20's. Am sure there are plenty of fringe players from years gone by (Law, Hodge, Moody etc) who wish they were born into this era. Watson has talent but does he have the toughness and the ticker? Ive always doubted it and will say again that he will never play in a winning Ashes side. In the absence of a wide number of options I'd rather see young players blooded (who will obviously fail at times) but at least look to the future. When Australia were beaten at home by England in 1986/87 they ended the series with the likes of Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Dean Jones & Steve Waugh in the top order. By the time they got to 1989 they added Mark Taylor and won 4-0. Its time to turn to the likes of Mitchell Marsh (if Watson is to be replaced as an all-rounder) or Joe Burns & Alex Doolan as batsmen.