Australia in South Africa 2011-12 November 12, 2011

What to do with Watson?

While his bowling remains important to Australia, consideration must be given to him moving down the batting order

Shane Watson is unfailingly honest. On Australia's disastrous second day in Cape Town, he took five wickets and then was dismissed in the first over of Australia's innings. When asked after the game if his bowling work affects his mindset when he walks out to open the batting, he was frank.

"After getting five wickets, you don't have any time to soak it in and re-approach your batting," he said. "Before I knew it I was back in the pavilion. It's a balancing act to mentally switch off my bowling and wait to enjoy it until after the day's play. That's something I need to do better because when I have got wickets or bowled quite a bit, I haven't scored any runs."

Watson does not want to give up opening, but Australia's problem is that he has taken too many wickets in recent times. Or rather, Watson has had to take too many wickets, because the rest of the bowlers haven't. In suitable conditions, he swings the ball more than any of his colleagues. He bowls full enough and curves the ball late enough to trouble top-class batsmen. At times he looks like he is running in treacle as he approaches his delivery stride. But he gets the job done.

Over the past 18 months, only Mitchell Johnson has collected more victims for Australia than Watson, who during that period has taken more five-wicket hauls - three - than any other Australia bowler.

He has just entered the top 10 on the ICC's Test bowling rankings, a career high. He has become, whether Australia realises it or not, a bowling allrounder. It is illogical for a bowling allrounder to open the batting. Of course, his place in the team is inextricably linked to the success or failure of the other bowlers, notably Johnson.

Johnson may have more taken wickets than Watson over the last 18 months, but his average is nearly twice as high. His place in the team must be questioned, and if he makes way for another fast man who more consistently threatens the opposition batsmen, Watson's bowling workload might decrease.

His work ethic is not in question. On Saturday, on what should have been the fourth day of the Test, the Australians scheduled an optional training session back at Newlands. Watson was one of five players who turned up, along with Phillip Hughes, Ricky Ponting, Trent Copeland and Nathan Lyon. Watson was the last man remaining in the nets, facing throwdowns after the others had left.

But besides his bowling work, and despite his desire to open, there are other arguments for him to move down the order. He has not scored a Test century since October last year, and has made only two in 43 innings as a Test opener. There have been plenty of fifties, but openers must bat long more often.

By pairing Watson and Hughes, Australia are trusting two aggressive stroke-makers to see off the new ball. It is a fraught approach. The most successful opening partnerships have been based on a balance between defence and attack. Matthew Hayden's power was offset by Justin Langer's fight; Mark Taylor's stubbornness at the crease allowed Michael Slater to flourish. Sometimes two accumulators can form a fine partnership - Jack Fingleton and Bill Brown, for example, or Taylor and Geoff Marsh - but rarely do two dashers thrive at the top of a Test order.

The journalist Ray Robinson once wrote of Bill Lawry that if not actually wedded to his wicket, they were at least going steady. It is not clear that either Watson or Hughes are quite as attached to theirs.

Even if Hughes is eventually dropped, perhaps for David Warner, the imbalance will remain. The man in Australia's side who is temperamentally most suited to partnering a strokeplaying opener is Shaun Marsh. There is no reason that Marsh could not be promoted to open. He has the skill and the composure to succeed against the new ball. Watson could complete his bowling duties, rest, and then bat anywhere from No. 4 to No. 6.

The change might not be made for the second Test in Johannesburg. Other factors - Marsh's back injury and Ricky Ponting's poor form key among them - will come into play. But for the long-term good of Australia's Test side, consideration must be given to Watson moving down the order.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • lugu on November 15, 2011, 14:36 GMT

    the aussies should admit they made a and bring simon kattich as the opener who can bring a great sense of balance to the side .come on australia let common sense and reason prevail.

  • Ajeesh on November 15, 2011, 11:24 GMT

    Dont give my Watson much workload even though he accept it with pleasure. Suchan hard working and committed sportsman

  • Randolph on November 15, 2011, 10:05 GMT

    @Jeremy, you are right I must've been looking at Cooper or someone, whoops! Anyway I am a redback supporter and have watched Dan a lot and think he's got the stuff!

  • Dummy4 on November 15, 2011, 0:04 GMT

    RandyOZ, Dan Christian averages a tick over 28 in first class cricket, which is a lot lower than the 53 you claimed.

    Meanwhile, I'm still struggling to get my head around the number of people who think Watson doesn't make sense as an opener. He batted most of his shield career at number 3, without anyone worrying about his bowling workload, because he was never relied on as a chief wickettaker for QLD, TAS or NSW.

    What's changed is that his bowling has really developed, while much of the rest of the AUS bowling attack has generally been poor. Fix the bowling attack, let Watson bowl shorter stints and generally not to the tail, and then let him bat where he's naturally suited - the top order.

  • Randolph on November 14, 2011, 22:34 GMT

    @Steve Gregory, one of the few, along with myself, actually noticing Dan Christian as a gun. This bloke averages 53 but because he plays for SA gets ignored.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2011, 15:06 GMT

    I agree with Beertije i believe Warner should open the batting with Marshy and watto should come before Haddin,Punter should bat where he is at his best at number 3 and i personally believe tht Dougy should come back into the test side as he has proven good form in place of Johnson.Haddins days are over so he should pack his bags and leave,on the other hand if Punter doesn't perform till the end of the India series he should also retire

  • Alex on November 14, 2011, 13:36 GMT

    Watson with his aggression, beefy strength and need for post-bowling rest would be better suited to middle order batting, where he could develop into a destroyer a-la Bevan or Symonds. Watson as a Test opener never made any sense except in his own mind and the deluded minds of the Aussie selectors. I can't fault his hope and training application. But the figures do the necessary talking; it can't work. Won't work. Don't work.

  • Dummy4 on November 14, 2011, 13:17 GMT

    I think they need to bring katich as a opener and make watson bat at the middle

  • Mashuq on November 14, 2011, 9:50 GMT

    Players get comfortable in their roles and a re reluctant to change, e.g., Hussey started as an opener in 2005, but soon moved down the order. Pup probably won't want to bat at three. However Watto would welcome dropping to 4, so that leaves Pup and Huss where they currently are. As Brydon says, one needs a stolid Alfie type to complement a dasher, so Marsh and Warner seem like a logical combination, even if a right-left combo would have helped. That just leaves Khawaja and Punter. Give the latter what he deserves: forced retirement in the form of a final home game (Hobart vs Kiwis) and then bring in Usman. All of the above are logical and sensible, so the sooner they get implemented the better for our future. The bowling options are a lot less clear, and specific conditions will play a part. Cummins can be given a try at Wanderers, but MJ's time is rapidly coming to an end (we all hope!). It's not short-term success but proper planning with people being given a fair go that's required

  • David on November 14, 2011, 9:02 GMT

    I think there are two ways the selectors might handle the move. One is a direct swap with M. Hussey to open and Watson to bat at No. 6. The other is for S Marsh to move up to open and Watson down to No. 5 or 6.

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