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

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