Watto October 23, 2011

What Watson learnt

The Australia allrounder's account of how he overcame injury to become integral to his side gives you the story, but the telling is not spectacular

Had Shane Watson maintained faith in the advice of Cricket Australia's medical staff, he might easily have been invalided out of the game by now, forever to be regarded as a subject of ridicule. Stricken by recurring injuries at the age of 26, seemingly the result of a body that could not adapt to the demands of bowling, Watson reached the limit of his endurance four years ago. A hamstring had twinged yet again at the wrong moment, this time during the 2007 World Twenty20. Watson was told by CA's exasperated medical minds "there's nothing more we can do for you". That exasperation was shared by the Australian public, some of whom had taken to using his name as a byword for flakiness.

This advice sent Watson spinning at first, but ultimately whirred him towards Victor Popov, a physiotherapist of world renown with fundamentals drawn from life with the Australian Olympic team and also the relentless world of European cycling. With Popov's help, Watson reshaped his attitudes and retuned his body, to the point that he is among the most durable and indispensable members of the Australian team. He also commands far more respect as a cricketer and a leader than anyone might have thought possible in 2007. Watson's is a story rich with meaning, and one of the many lessons to be drawn from his journey is that the vague or the second-best should never be accepted.

Given that, it is sad to relate that Watson's autobiography is a clunky piece of work. The story is there, and so are plenty of frank observations; admirable, too, is Watson's motivation for writing, which was to encourage others to seek out additional medical opinions when sport or life seem to have presented an insurmountable obstacle. Yet the manner of the telling leaves much to be desired. The book's pleasures are those of the potboiler, not the well-constructed work. Having released Watto at more or less the height of his powers, Watson can be expected to pen another tome once his career ends. It is to be hoped that the lessons of his cricket and his body will be applied to any subsequent depictions of his life.

Having begun with the aforementioned medical advice in 2007, Watson and Thomson cast back to the start. These scenes are perhaps the most affecting ones featured in the pages, showing Watson dealing with stress fractures for the first time when only 13, and living a young life devoted almost utterly to cricket. Take this passage on Watson as a teenager: "I never went to parties in high school because I always had cricket the next day, and I never used to smoke pot like everyone else. I loved playing cricket and I wasn't interested in anything that might interfere with that. As for girls, when I was at school I suppose I was always a bit of a nerd in a way. We weren't that well-off and I never had all the new fashions. Also, whatever my dad wore, I thought was cool. I guess I was an under-achiever on the social side."

The very next paragraph deals with Watson's early motivation in cricket, and can perhaps explain a number of his decisions, both cricketing and commercial, down the years. Fame was always in his sights: "I wanted to do something so that people knew I existed. I was going to make a name for myself in whatever way I possibly could, and the obvious way was through cricket."

Stress fractures and social ineptitude subsided enough for Watson to grow into a promising young allrounder, and he attended the Cricket Academy alongside Michael Clarke, Mitchell Johnson and Nathan Hauritz. It was there that Rod Marsh lauded Watson's batting technique and, with Queensland in the midst of its most prodigious success, helped engineer his temporary move south to a grateful Tasmania.

A first-class debut encounter with the spurned Bulls is recounted vividly, where the senior batsman Stuart Law went out of his way to make the young Watson uncomfortable about moving states. Here Watson relays one of his most important lessons, about the need to build strong relationships within a team: "Even if you're a brilliant player, if nobody likes being around you, as soon as there's an opportunity, you're gone." Having absorbed many of Law's barbs, Watson asked him in a subsequent Sheffield Shield match why he made 56 not out on Test debut then never played again, and pushed the point that he may not have been popular among team-mates. Law lost his composure, and soon after, his wicket.

"I never went to parties in high school because I always had cricket the next day, and I never used to smoke pot like everyone else. I loved playing cricket and I wasn't interested in anything that might interfere with that. As for girls, when I was at school I suppose I was always a bit of a nerd in a way. We weren't that well-off and I never had all the new fashions"
Watson looks back at his growing-up years

The passages that detail Watson's rejuvenation as a physical specimen with Popov, and also as a batsman with the help of Greg Chappell in 2008-09, are instructive. His thoughts on the demise of Andrew Symonds - a rival but also a state team-mate - are clear. The 2006 boot camp engineered by John Buchanan is recounted in detail; Watson enjoying a ringside seat as the coach and his most wayward pupil, Shane Warne, were grouped together.

But there are also swathes of the contradictory and the grating. Watson's recollections of the 2008 Nagpur Test against India, when Ricky Ponting let his tactical thinking be damagingly clouded by the matter of over rates, centre on the poor health of Michael Clarke and Brett Lee. There is no mention that Ponting did not call on either Watson or Mitchell Johnson until India had wriggled clear of a parlous position, only a frustrated jab at the media. It is not the only time Watson trains his sights on those who cover the game.

Recurring through the pages are a series of "drinks breaks", brief passages on various topics. Some, like a comparison between county and Shield cricket, are useful, some are rote (Australian and international pitches get a fairly humdrum run-through), and some leave a nastier taste. Watson has always spoken generously and fairly in public, but he offers plenty of criticism of the media, generally suggesting that their observations and stories are too harsh, too critical. All this feels a little forced, especially when many of Watson's own opinions elsewhere are as bold and sugarless as anything found in the daily press.

Last summer's Ashes offer the best example. Watson describes Australian cricket being "at an all-time low" following the "disaster" of a home defeat to England. Looking at team selections for the series, Watson reckons the bowlers were "absolutely shitting themselves" each time they took the field, for fear of being dropped for one poor performance, while the batsmen were unaccountably cloistered. He also lashes out at the CA decision-makers, who ignored David Saker's skill as a bowling coach to the point that he was employed by England. "It's been very frustrating over the last couple of years to see some of our best coaches not coaching where they should be," Watson laments.

Watson's general tone is one of frankness and honesty, if a little self-justification, yet the book's is that of the cash-grab. There are views within publishing in Australia that quality does not sell and that populist, lowest-common-denominator fare will do better with a public perceived to be losing interest in anything that delves too far beyond the shiny surface. A better book may have been crafted over a longer time-span, employed a co-writer with a greater background in cricket, and found a voice more authoritative than that found at times within these pages. But it would also have been more expensive to write, edit, print and publish, and may not have been ready precisely in time for the outset of the Australian summer. Still, Watson's own contributions are measurably fuller and better than those in many cricket biographies in the past - the same books he mentions reading in vast quantities as a youth.

Ultimately the player that comes through in these pages is a man who has learned much about himself and his body, and who has remained honest and transparent in his opinions throughout his time in cricket. The great pity of Watto is that the lessons that have taken its subject from an injury-speckled beginning to a successful and pivotal present place in Australian cricket have not been applied quite so rigorously to his story. There is a great book to be written about Shane Watson, but this is not it.

Shane Watson with Jimmy Thomson
Allen and Unwin

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo