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

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