Peter Roebuck
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Former captain of Somerset; author of It Never Rains, Sometimes I Forgot to Laugh and other books

Watson's turnaround

Shane Watson has transformed the fragility of his body into solidity and become perhaps the most valuable player in the game at the moment

Peter Roebuck

May 25, 2011

Comments: 30 | Text size: A | A

Shane Watson watches the ball sail into the stands, Australia v Canada, Group A, World Cup, Bangalore, March 16, 2011
Watson no longer fears that a twist or a turn of his body can send him off the field in pain © AFP

Not long ago Shane Watson was a crock. Now he counts among the most valuable cricketers - might even top the list - and serves as vice-captain of his country. It is an astonishing turnaround that speaks of commitment from the player, faith from the selectors, and a reminder of the truths that ability counts for a lot and that both mind and muscle can betray as often as they advance.

Through all the ups and downs, the endless niggles, the unkind laments, Watson has remained intact. For an unconscionable time it seemed he was deluding himself as he shrugged off another untimely injury and said that sooner or later he'd make his mark. Not without reason, he was designated as a gym cricketer, a calendar pin-up, a sportsman of rippling biceps but stuttering movement, an Atlas able to hold up the heaviest of weights yet not able to finish an over without hobbling off the field.

At once he had everything and nothing: he could crack boundaries and send the ball down at 140kph but could not compel his body, apparently his pride and joy, to complete a match. With the cruellest of ironies, his strongest asset, his strength, was also his weakness because it denied him rhythm and reliability - prize possessions in any cricketer.

It is well known that some injury-prone cricketers have chicken hearts, whilst others seek insurance payouts. Everyone knew that Watson was dedicated and desperate, but it was widely accepted, too, that he was not going to make the grade, let alone challenge Jacques Kallis' tenancy of the most-valuable-cricketer position.

Watto was never a laughing stock because his sincerity was manifest. Nor was he a cause for pity - after all he had an awful lot going for him. Rather, he evoked frustration tinged with sympathy. Repeatedly he would return to the field, his eyes full of hope and determination, repeatedly he would limp off again a few hours or days or weeks or even months later to face another gruelling period of rehabilitation. Most likely in the meantime he had whetted the appetites of captains, coaches, selectors and supporters with a few lusty contributions. Always Watson seemed to be hovering on the brink. Actually he hovered on two brinks, calamity and triumph, and looked both in the eye.

In hindsight, and it is the wisest of states, Watson's conduct during these times of trial and tribulation was underestimated. Somehow he held himself together. His bones might break but his spirit remained intact. Each time he returned to the gym and set about repairing the damage. Evidently cricket was not a soft option for him, it was the only option. He could not walk away. He was a cricketer and he was bound to the game till it closed its doors on him. Devotion is best tested by rejection.

Eventually Watson realised that his instinctive response to every setback was the very thing that caused the setback in the first place. His determination to get back into the gym and lift even heavier weights and to make his body even stronger was bringing him down. In trying to make himself indestructible he had merely succeeded in making himself ever more fragile. He wanted to be a man of marble but instead was made of porcelain. Plain and simple, his body was not properly prepared for the demands of the cricket field. Perhaps, too, he had allowed vanity to run a little too freely. It was a time of introspection and accountability. Watson realised that sensible batsmen ditched the shots that brought them down or learned to play them better. Clearly the principle had a wider application. Only a fool keeps asking the same question and expects a different answer.

Seeking a training regime that suited his game and pushed him hard, Watson stopped lifting heavy weights and started concentrating on aerobics, or exercises as they were called in less fashionable days, when people talked not of Reeboks but sandshoes, not of pilates but running and push-ups. In a trice Watson's fitness, and so his fortunes, changed. Sometimes the solution is blindingly obvious. Sometimes it is discovered only by the desperate.

Suddenly Watson started bowling flat out and hitting the ball hard, and he did so without feeling any pain or fearing any jolt. At first the entire cricket community held its breath. He had not told anyone about the change in his regime, and the clues were few and far between because he still looked more like Arnold Schwarzenegger than Twiggy. Just that he kept playing and did not break down.

Eventually Watson realised that his instinctive response to every setback was the very thing that caused the setback in the first place. His determination to get back into the gym and to lift even heavier weights and to make his body even stronger was bringing him down. He wanted to be a man of marble but instead was made of porcelain

And with every passing week his confidence grew. Long in the habit of choosing him whenever his body allowed, the selectors sent him to England for the 2009 Ashes tour. From a distance it seemed that he was going mostly as a back-up, to lend a hand with bat or ball. Later the selectors insisted that he had been picked as the reserve batsman in a squad dependent on six specialists, some of them flighty. Watson had played Shield cricket as a specialist, batting No. 4 for Tasmania in one of his periods of rehabilitation. He had scored a lot of runs too, though that was not unusual in those parts in those days.

Indeed Watson had failed to meet only one of challenges in his path during the somewhat scratchy early years. He had flopped as an opening batsman. If Australia lost an opener to form or injury they were in more trouble than a kulfi in a tandoori. And so the news that Watson had replaced Phil Hughes at the top of the order for the vital Edgbaston Test was greeted with alarm from Australian fans. Had the think tank gone stark raving bonkers? Even taking Hughes' struggles into account the risk seemed reckless.

In the ensuing 18 months - how much longer it seems - Watto has turned his career around (it would be misleading to say he turned his life around because he never allowed it to sink in the first place, never lost momentum, never allowed the world to best him). And his assertion of his true self began in that very first match, with a string of fierce pulls executed without the slightest hesitation, and a succession of clattering drives played with the broadest of bats. And all of it was done without any hint of nervousness or any sense that he did not belong. His method was simple and his bat was straight. After a long period of struggle, he became an overnight sensation.

Yet despite appearances, Watson is not Superman and could not rescue his team from every peril or perform mighty feats after donning the cap. For a time, too, he was held back by the tightness that comes with a Test hundred in sight (one wit wrote that he had a worse time in the 90s than Kurt Cobain). It told of the sense of history that marks the true cricketer. Repeatedly he would drive, cut and pull his way towards three figures only to turn to jelly with the honour in his grasp. Eventually he broke the curse, though it took a dropped sitter at backward point to allow it. In ODIs, too, Watson has tended to lose his wicket after reaching 50, a trait that might be blamed upon his commitments with the ball. Batsmen tend to assume that bowlers are sensitive simpletons until thrown the leather, whereupon they discover the intensity of concentration demanded by the activity.

Despite these minor failings - and they indicate the extent of his success - Watson has become a formidable figure in the game. To put him alongside Kallis as the most valuable of modern cricketers is not to belittle Kallis or to suggest that Watson is his equal as an allrounder. In that regard Kallis' sustained achievements confirm that he belongs in a higher category, though the modern custom of putting him beside Garry Sobers ignores the West Indian's extraordinary range and capacity for changing the course of matches.

By no means can Watson be mentioned in the same breath as these great cricketers. Illogical as it might sound, though, and taking all forms of the game into account, a strong case can be made for regarding Watson as the most valuable player in 2011. After all, he opens the innings for his country to telling effect, scores quickly, takes his catches, and picks up wickets with the ball, especially when conditions favour swing. He is also widely respected and often volunteers to attend press conference after a bad day. Journalists notice these things. In 50-over cricket he hits the ball with immense power and often bowls his 10 overs. He is consistent because his technique is simple and based upon the perpendicular and horizontal. Like most rural Queenslanders he does not bother much with the dainty; he knows it cannot survive a bushfire, a drought, a cane toad or a dodgy deck.

Watson is no less a match-winner in Twenty20, a point he proved once again as Shane Warne bid farewell to the game, managing not to upset any pompous officials along the way. Like so many other attacks, the Mumbai Indians could not survive Watson's carving power. It is said of MS Dhoni that he bats like a caveman. Watson's power is not so much primitive as raw, and his game is built on strong foundations. Nor is it quite accurate to say that he lacks subtlety, for when the mood takes him and the moment requires it, he can glide, deflect and improvise with the best of them; just that it tends to get lost amid the blows.

And Watson has one other priceless quality, the most unexpected of them all. He stays fit. It has been quite the transformation.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

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Posted by popcorn on (May 28, 2011, 12:44 GMT)

Thank you,Peter Roebuck, for this wonderful article. It should serve as a pin-up on EVERY budding / injured cricketer's softboard as a MODEL.Shane Watson has been down, but never out. Special thanks to Phil Hughes for failing in the Ashes 2009 as an opener to help us discover Watto.And who was the brilliant selector / captain / Coach / Visionary or Think Tank that executed the masterstroke of placing Shane Watson as the opener, after Phil Hughes had failed despite no claims from past performances at the top of the order?

Posted by   on (May 28, 2011, 3:47 GMT)

watto, after 133 odis, avg 43.74 w bat (3927 runs), 29.05 w ball (133 wkts) kallis, after 135 odis, avg 43.90 w bat (4698 runs), 30.22 w ball (120 wkts) watto, after 27 tests, avg 41.55 w bat (1953 runs), 31.41 w ball (43 wkts) kallis, after 32 tests, avg 41.08 w bat (1849 runs), 28.45 w ball (53 wkts)

the stats are eerily similar. goes to show that kallis is the benchmark for all allrounders and tht he has had the benefit of longevity. also, kallis, by not getting injured has had benefit of bowling more when he was younger, which allowed him to take more wickets. watto, if he can play another 5 years w/o injury at same rate, won't catch up to kallis, but will have confirmed legend status. but i think watto is certainly capable of being in the kallis class....

Posted by slowerball on (May 26, 2011, 16:45 GMT)

Nice article, am a huge fan of Watto but it would have been nice to dwell a bit on the influence of the original Shane aka Warnie when they played together for the Rajasthan Royals in IPL V1. I would like to happily say Watto has never had to look back after that winning tournament.

Posted by Biggus on (May 26, 2011, 16:25 GMT)

@CSpiers-At this point in time Watson's test averages with bat and ball are on about a par with Tony Greig's career, and he was playing when bowlers world-wide were of a much higher standard. Those of us not prone to hagiography are correct in wanting to see more before we fall to our knees in worship, and to characterise these people as, "fickle and prone to mindless internet slander" is a bit rich. We're just cautiously pleased at his recent improvement and hoping that there's more to come. Far from being as you describe it this approach is merely being sensible.

Posted by CSpiers on (May 26, 2011, 11:12 GMT)

let it be noted that in test matches in 2009 Watson averaged over 60 with the bat and around 30 with the ball, followed up in 2010 with a batting average of 40 and a bowling average of 27. If he batted ANYWHERE but as an opener more people would feel more than comfortable singing his praises as an allrounder, but infact, to the mind that isnt fickle and prone to mindless internet slander, it is actually more impressive to see somebody performing in such a way that a few years ago nobody would have even dreamed of.

Posted by BellCurve on (May 26, 2011, 10:42 GMT)

Watson is currently at the peak of his powers, no doubt. But 22 days from now he will be celebrating his 30th birthday. His time is running out. If he ends his career with 6,000 Test runs and 140 Test wickets I would be amazed. That's 50% of what Kallis has already banked.

Posted by   on (May 26, 2011, 5:46 GMT)

Amazing cricketer. Nice article - enjoyed reading it. Missed a mention of Greg Chappell who is credited with improvements in Watto's batting.

Posted by Biggus on (May 26, 2011, 3:44 GMT)

I'm as happy as any Aussie that he's doing well but the amount of waffle being written in articles and comments about him is astounding. Why don't we go the whole hog and call him the 'Blond Bradman'. That should screw him up completely. He still has to prove that he can open against top attacks when the ball is moving around and tough it out in those situations before I'll be prepared to stop wishing for a specialist opener to let him drop down the order. A lot more needs to be done before I'm convinced, and one or two good seasons doesn't cut it. Give it ten years at the top level and we'll see.

Posted by AjaySridharan on (May 25, 2011, 19:36 GMT)

Does Peter Roebuck only write about stories that he can romanticize about? I agree with some of the other readers that said Watson is overrated and this article is ridden with cliches!

Posted by hottheadd11 on (May 25, 2011, 19:09 GMT)

Watson is not even 1/20th of the cricketer that Kallis is.....

Posted by Irfan_Muzammil on (May 25, 2011, 15:56 GMT)

I don't remember reading an article on Cricinfo with more cliches than this one

Posted by Winsome on (May 25, 2011, 15:33 GMT)

Blake Houston, that innings against Bangladesh isn't even in his top two. Seeing as how it came hot on the heels of him doing nothing when it mattered, ie: in the World Cup, how can you write such tosh?

Posted by   on (May 25, 2011, 14:27 GMT)

Wasim Akram once mentioned how he spent more time practicing bowling fast in the nets than working out in the gym. Tendulkar too, mentions how endless back to back matches in the parks of Mumbai honed his concentration and endurance. End of the day, our bodies are not meant for the professional rigors of fast bowling or batting - so more than gym fitness the match fitness counts. Watson has figured that out (with a little contribution from Warne, especially on the mental aspects of the game). Won't be drawn into Kallis comparisons or MVP tags, but do concede that Watson has had the resilience few expected of him - and has managed to turn his game and body around, so well done!

Posted by Fine_Legs on (May 25, 2011, 13:54 GMT)

It is worth remembering that Watson's real return came under the captaincy of Shane Warne in the first edition of the IPL, when his performance defined the spirit of his team Rajasthan Royals, and in many ways the shorter duration of the game gave him the opportunity to play result-changing hands that must have got him into the habit. Shane Warne had a tremendous influence on several in his charge; Shane Watson probably gained most from his tutelage.

Posted by   on (May 25, 2011, 13:45 GMT)

Absolute garbage - as standard for this site and Roebuck. Watson is a fragile flat-track bully who simply can't perform in tough situations - and to that a military medium bowler who England played with contempt during the summer.

One of the worst conversion rates between starts and meaningful scores. It's an insult to the headstrong players in the game to call this joke the game's MVP. Not that expect any sense from Roebuck.

Posted by Liz_Hamp on (May 25, 2011, 13:43 GMT)

watto, as australia's most reliable cricketer..hahaha, i agree but on the downside it also explains their current state. Since when did Australia have to depend on tits and bits players.

Posted by   on (May 25, 2011, 13:12 GMT)

You missed the turning point of his life and the brains of a certain SK Warne. He chose him and gave him that responsible role in RR where he really developed and put him in aussie radar with mvp in IPL.

Posted by The_Dynamite_Kid on (May 25, 2011, 12:55 GMT)

I'm a big admirer of Shane Watson. Fantastic talent.

Posted by   on (May 25, 2011, 9:42 GMT)

I liked the article but it felt like i was reading a short novel on watson, rather then an article, plus i already know all thius as he is my favourite cricketer and i have followed his journey very closely and everytime he cringed, i cringed harder, everytime he missed a squad from injury, i felt it and got mad because he is our best player. The good thing is he is on the up, he is has gone ahead of flintoff and is approaching kallis, but kallis is a better test batsman and allrounder, watson is better in ODI format due to his quick scoring and he also WINS MATCHES, kallis goes about his bussiness quietly while watto does everything with a bang (16 sixes, 185 not out 96 balls) The innings vs bangladesh is maybe the 2nd best ODI innings of all time behind tendulkars 200 not out. Not for the runs scored, but the rate they were scored at and the devastation he caused for the bangladesh team, i'll never forget it, cmon watto get test avg of 50+ with bat and be all time great!!

Posted by Rahul_78 on (May 25, 2011, 9:37 GMT)

Watto deserved this fabulous article from no less then Peter himself. It has been a phenomenal transformation from much hated promising young cricketer to the admired cricketer and vice captain of OZ. Good on ya Watto!

Posted by   on (May 25, 2011, 8:32 GMT)

I just hope Watson doesnt fall prey to the writer"s curse! He may not be in the Kallis class yet or ever attain the standards set by Gary Sobers whom I had the privilege of watching at Chepauk a small matter of 45 years ago. But you can safely say that he is Australia"s best bet and hope for the next few years at least. If he continues to remain fit and play as we all know he can Australia will not sink into oblivion. He is a great trier and has enormous ability . His driving is great to watch and his pulling is ferocious. We all know he can bend his back with great effect. His innings against Mumbai Indians was as breathtaking as was his innings against Bangladesh. But the true tests for Australia start now. Watson cannot sit back on what he has done so far. The future beckons and soon enough Srilanka and South Africa not to forget India will be at him . Here is hoping that fulsome praise doesnt make things worse for him sridhar

Posted by d.mulay on (May 25, 2011, 8:20 GMT)

Yes, Watson is the most valuable/consistant player for last 2 years, but with that, you can not compare him with Kallis, for him to get compared with Kallis, Watson atleast needs to perform consistantly for 5 years. Kallis is class act, if you take his all round ability then I'll consider him better than Lara or ever Sachin.

Posted by   on (May 25, 2011, 7:06 GMT)

The detail about the change in his training regimen was illuminating. Thanks. Incidentally, does Roebuck not think much of Warne's influence on Watson in the IPL? Isn't that where the turnaround began and Watson's effectiveness as an opener was unearthed? Only after he started playing 3 games a week and not breaking down did Cricket Australia really take notice.

Posted by donda on (May 25, 2011, 6:15 GMT)

I have no clue ; may be its medical science or a miracle that man with most injuries in last 10 years is the most valuable cricketer and consistent cricketer in the world.

Its all about learning from different trainers and learning from your mistakes and asking doctors correct advise and putting every thing together you can achieve miracle which Watson did. I hoped that Andrew flintoff had the same luck and miracle and we would be able to see one of the great allrounders of all time but Andrew never had that luck.

Best of luck to Watson and i hope he played 10 more years for australia with honor.

Salute to his commitment to come back.

Posted by Meety on (May 25, 2011, 5:38 GMT)

Another bloody Watson tribute! Oh well, its a good one anyways. There is a distinction between Allrounder & MVP, I would say that Watto stands a good chance over the remainder of his career to better Sobers & Kallis in terms of bowling, remains to be seen whether he finally starts converting 50s to 100s - then he might challenge Kallis & Sobers for batting. He definately is not on their pedistal yet.

Posted by heat-seeker on (May 25, 2011, 5:13 GMT)

The best Australian batsman in the last 2 years (in all forms). And probably the most valuable all-rounder in ODI and T20 cricket in the world. But I don't think he's proved himself yet as the most valuable in Test cricket. Pure bowlers like Steyn, Swann, Khan and Anderson, as well as pure batsmen like Sehwag, Tendulkar, VVS, DeVilliers and Kallis have been far more valuable in Test cricket over the last 2-3 years. (I mention Kallis as a batsman, as he bowls much more sparingly than when he was younger, and his main impact has been as a batsman in that period)

Posted by hornet18 on (May 25, 2011, 5:02 GMT)

I used to be a Watson knocker but he has since earned my total respect and anyone who continues to knock him will be saying more about themselves than Shane Watson. He had the courage and the commitment to get through many false dawns.

Posted by jonesy2 on (May 25, 2011, 5:01 GMT)

best article ive read from roebuck. i get that you cant say watson is better than kallis but i think at the end of their careers, if watson keeps this up, he will for sure be right in that bracket. he is without a doubt the best and most valuable player in the world right now.

Posted by Stouffer on (May 25, 2011, 4:46 GMT)

Has he retired? Surely we don't normally speak in such dreamy terms until after someones career has finished. And no mention of his generally unlikeable demeanor on field (ie jumping like a spoilt child after getting Chris Gayle out) which is one of the reasons that so many Aussies I know really don't like him at all.

Posted by Cam_PT on (May 25, 2011, 3:58 GMT)

Nice tribute. Definitely what we are all thinking. The man (I can't remember his name) who changed Watson's training regime deserves the highest accolade too.

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Peter RoebuckClose
Peter Roebuck He may not have played Test cricket for England, but Peter Roebuck represented Somerset with distinction, making over 1000 runs nine times in 12 seasons, and captaining the county during a tempestuous period in the 1980s. Roebuck acquired recognition all over the cricket world for his distinctive, perceptive, independent writing. Widely travelled, he divided his time between Australia and South Africa. He died in November 2011

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