India v Australia, 4th Test, Delhi March 21, 2013

Time for Watson to stand up as leader

Seeing Shane Watson captain Australia might be unpalatable to some but despite the events of the past fortnight he is the logical stand-in if Michael Clarke is unfit

Australia avoided one leadership change on Thursday when Julia Gillard survived a would-be spill, but the more important matter of the Test captaincy remained uncertain. Okay, facetiousness aside, perhaps the prime ministership is of slightly greater consequence. But there is no escaping the ownership Australia's sports fans feel for the national cricket team and the prestige surrounding the captaincy. After all, Dave Gregory led the country 24 years before Edmund Barton did.

Prime ministers, by the very nature of party politics, are usually loathed by half the population, who want to see them fail. Cricket captains aren't always popular but rarely are they subject to quite that level of vitriol, largely because the nation's cricket fans would prefer to see the team succeed. But if, as expected, Shane Watson becomes Australia's 44th Test captain on Friday morning, those attitudes will be severely tested given the anti-Watson sentiment among some sections of the public.

To a degree, such a viewpoint is justified. There is no question that Watson handled his axing from the team last week badly. It was not about him flying home on the day the decision was announced, it was what he said on the way. Instead of accepting the decision with grace, he called the punishment "very harsh" and said he would weigh up his Test future while at home for the birth of his first child. Whatever his intentions, it came across as a dummy-spit.

And of course the source of the problem was that he was one of four players who failed to complete a task set by the coach, Mickey Arthur, which was based around how the team could improve. As vice-captain, he should have been leading by example. The issue was exacerbated by the general manager of team performance, Pat Howard, saying Watson was a team player "sometimes" and Watson hitting back by declaring that Howard wouldn't know.

Watson has a habit of saying things that don't do his public image any good. Recently this has included often expressing his desire to return to the opening position, which some people viewed as a campaign to oust Ed Cowan. That is not a fair assessment. The reality is that Watson is just honest, even artless, in the way he answers questions. If he is asked something - would you like to be opening in the Test team? - he says what he thinks.

That might sound commendable but in a team environment such public frankness can be detrimental. It certainly was last week. It should not, however, be a hanging sin. It was up to Watson to take a good hard look in the mirror and perhaps becoming a father gave him perspective. He has declared his commitment to Australia's Test team for the long term and has been welcomed back by the team management.

Cricket Australia would have the public believe that it is now happy families in the dressing room. That may not entirely be true, but stripping Watson of the vice-captaincy or overlooking him for the leadership in Delhi if Clarke is unfit would only serve to create tension and division in a squad that needs to unite. As stand-in captain during nine ODIs over the past two summers, Watson has shown some aptitude for the job.

Leading in a Test will be a tougher challenge but he will have men like Cowan, Matthew Wade and David Warner to call on for assistance. That such players, none of whom have played 20 Tests, will be his key deputies speaks volumes for the lack of experience in this squad. That is all the more reason to invest responsibility in Watson at this stage, to ask him to show the way, as Clarke usually does. Cowan said this week that Watson was a good leader around the group, and was a "lead-by-example" type, especially in the way he prepares. It is time he gave more than that.

Watson has said that when he captains "I use my brain in a different way than I normally do". That can be translated to thinking more about the team and worrying less about himself. That is not a bad thing, although it remains to be seen whether it will be detrimental to his batting. And that is the one area in which Watson simply must improve. He has averaged 25.20 in his past 13 Tests and has made only two centuries in 40 Tests. For a top-six batsman, that is an unacceptable return.

The vice-captaincy should not be a free pass into the XI - and nor should the captaincy, for that matter. But when Watson is bowling he provides vital balance to the team. Not only does he have a habit of taking important Test wickets, his all-round role creates room for another specialist batsman. That has been sorely lacking on this Indian tour, where Watson has decided against bowling in an effort to prevent injury.

He does, however, intend to be bowling again by this year's Ashes tour of England and a batting and bowling Watson is important in the structure of the team in the battle for the urn. There is no question that 2013, with its back-to-back Ashes series and difficult Indian tour, will be a make-or-break year for Watson. So far, it hasn't started well. If he continues to struggle with the bat he may not see the year out.

But ditching him from the vice-captaincy now, after he has committed to the side, would not help. The further sinking of his public image over the past ten days has been punishment enough. It might be unpalatable to some people - many people - to see Watson in the green and gold blazer at the toss of the coin in Delhi. He probably wouldn't beat Gillard or Tony Abbott in a popularity contest right now, and that's saying something. But for the sake of stability in a side that is seriously lacking it, if Clarke is unfit, Watson as captain is the logical choice.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on March 22, 2013, 11:34 GMT

    Last 2 years, of Aussies that have played 10 or more tests, Clarke, Hussey, Warner, Ponting, Wade, Cowan, Pattinson and Hughes all have a better batting record than Watson. If you include those players with 5 or more tests, we can add Starc, Khawaja and Marsh to that list.

    So I am confused about those who rate Watson so highly in this present team, especially when he can not bowl.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 9:04 GMT

    Discipline a player by dropping him from the team. Then pick him as a captain for the next test. This must be a first in Test cricket. He redeemed himself by flying home while his team mates played a another losing test. Came back into the team captaining the side.

  • Keith on March 22, 2013, 4:19 GMT

    That is indeed the logical choice. So for the time sake the appointment done get on with it. Leave the serious thinking and individual soul searching for the Ashes.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 3:20 GMT

    Watson is a shrewd player and am confident that he will lead the team well. Australia is very desperate to keep their pride and therefore they will put full efforts to make this test interesting. I think Warner and Watson will come good and if Haddin as well contributes in batting, they will put big score in the first innings. With the return of Pattinson and the possibility of Mitchell Johnson playing, the team looks extremely good (even though Australia will miss Clarke). I am expecting an exciting test in Delhi.

  • Mariam on March 22, 2013, 1:44 GMT

    Haven't been impressed with Watson's batting in this tour, but he was right in his comments on the homework drama, the whole world is still laughing at us and it did little for us in the 3rd test. It should have been dealt with behind doors in a group setting, badly handled by Arthur

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2013, 1:41 GMT

    Yes -inclined to agree with 'Big Maxy' above ...and I think it should be stressed that Watson did NOT actually fly home in a 'Hissy Fit" as one SMH columnist suggested this week ... he had always intended to leave for the birth of his child ...and when he was suspended ( and what a ridiculous move was that ? quite entitling him to be a tad upset ! ) .. he just took the opportunity to 'be off' straight away ! ... and although overall he only averages 25 .. there was a period when he was sitting amongst the worlds top 2 or 3 most reliable openers ...and its THAT Watson that we want , and desperately need back !

  • Simon on March 22, 2013, 1:04 GMT

    I don't think there is to much choice involved. Watson is the second best player in our best team; Haddin isn't in the best team. Watson has done just fine, exposing the likes of Arthur and Howard as the job creation boys that get in the way and are achieving nothing worthwhile except to their own financial wellbeing. Since the selections have been hopeless to date we can expect more silliness today.

  • Connor on March 22, 2013, 0:35 GMT

    Question: How did Shane Watson make it into the Australian side in the first place? Answer: After our humiliating Ashes defeat in England in 2007 when Andrew Flintoff did some damage, Cricket Australia panicked about us not having a specialist all-rounder and basically presented Shane Watson with an offer to join the side. Since then it has been like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Watson has proclaimed himself back and forth from being an all-rounder to being a specialist batsmen and back again. Despite his obvious talent, his indecision and persistent injuries has resulted in him being a huge liability rather than an asset to the Australian Test team. By almost removing himself from Test cricket last week he was the closest he's been to doing anything constructive for the Australian team in many years. As for the Test captaincy, Watson as captain is a situation that must simply be endured until it's over - much like Julia Gillard in Australia!!

  • Daniel on March 22, 2013, 0:12 GMT

    "[...] Whatever his intentions, it came across as a dummy-spit. The source of the problem [...]"

    The source of the problem is the media's desire to turn everything into more of an drama than it already is. He's going to be in a reflective mood with the imminent birth of his first child. That's enough to make anyone consider their future. He'll be thinking is this Test stuff worth it, or should I concentrate my efforts on where I can make a little more money for my family. It isn't all about me any more. Those thoughts are swirling around in his head. He's about to tell the Captain and Coach he might have to go home for a bit. The way I read things their seemed like there might have been the potential for complications with the birth. And then the coach and the captain say we needed your assesment of the team's perform yesterday. Sorry if you had other things on your mind. You're out! We've got to set an example for the other guys! And then the media says he handled it wrong! Please.

  • Alex on March 21, 2013, 22:56 GMT

    You guys especially author of article thinking aussie team if full of legends. If you remove clarke only watson provides multi skilled and have enough oomph in his batting skills. His bowling is iffy for me but he takes crucial wicket just by luck. But i like his personality. There is no one better in the current crop. So shut up. We all know watson crushed indian in T20. Ofcourse Test is different. For me watson has all the stuff to be captain. He brings more to the table than anybody except clarke. Can he focus his mind and focus all his abilities to make australia a make stand in DD?. I think he can. But if there are "clarke's players who might undermine him also. Australian setup under mick arthur is a messy affair. I would get rid of micky arthur before ashes if you ask me. :)

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