February 12, 2012

Watson should remain at the top of the order

His batting skills are too good for him to be saddled with a frontline bowler's job too

The Australian Test team's resurgence has been swift and convincing, but that shouldn't lead to overconfidence.

Two of Australia's more experienced players, who are now performing in Sydney grade ranks, Brad Haddin and Shane Watson, are required in the Caribbean tour party in order to continue the side's improved performance.

Any discussion about Watson revolves around his fitness and a likely move to the middle order. Watson is injury-prone and it's a problem. It's hard to believe he has missed the whole summer with a calf injury. After an injury-free period his return to fitness uncertainty makes the case for him reverting to a part-time bowler even stronger.

Watson is a top-class opening batsman. That role is crucial because in all the euphoria over Australia's domination of India, it shouldn't be forgotten that on a couple of occasions the top order was reduced to tatters before the experienced middle-order players retrieved the situation.

All the talk about Watson not converting starts into centuries often enough misses the point of the task at hand. There are two types of successful openers: those who get a start and go on to amass big scores and those who are hardly ever dismissed early but rarely pass the century mark.

As an opener Watson has only been dismissed for under 20 13 times in 45 innings and five of those came in his last eight digs. This is not the time to lose confidence in him as an opener, and demoting him to the middle order so he can bowl more isn't as straightforward as it may sound.

Watson is best equipped to be a top-order player and there's every chance he won't be as effective in the middle order. The lowest I would contemplate using him is at No. 3, but before making that move Australia need to find someone who is a better opener. I haven't seen that player yet.

Watson and David Warner could turn out to be a highly explosive combination at the top of the order. When they fire, Australia could be on the path to victory in the first session of a Test match. In addition, Watson's experience and consistency could be invaluable to Warner, allowing him the freedom to play with an attacking flair that comes naturally.

As for Watson's bowling, I'd treat him as a part-timer whose main priority is to make runs at the top of the order. He might bowl a couple of short spells during the day but nothing that's going to detract from his batting. With Australia's strength in pace bowling and spinner Nathan Lyon showing promise, there shouldn't be any need for Watson to provide more than just a few overs in a day's play.

Haddin's presence in the Test side gives Matthew Wade an extended opportunity to acclimatise to international cricket via the shorter forms of the game. By the end of the Indian Test series Haddin's glovework was much sharper, and his batting still has a destructive edge to it. While he wasn't keeping like a man whose time has come, he does need to be more consistent.

Even if the selectors can't convince Cricket Australia to take a second wicketkeeper to the Caribbean, Wade could be chosen as the extra batsman. Of all the young batsmen around, he is probably the best qualified for the middle order. He has had success in that position in the Sheffield Shield competition and he plays spin bowling better than the likes of Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja and Phillip Hughes.

While Watson and Haddin may currently be relegated to club cricket it shouldn't mean they are no longer considered important members of the Test side. Wade needs to force Haddin out of the team with the weight of international performance and a fit Watson is a must at the top of the order.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist