Watson's resignation throws up important questions
The Australian vice-captaincy should not be a free pass that guarantees selection. Nor should the captaincy be, come to that. But equally, dropping one of the team's nominated leaders from the XI is an unpleasant business, for the player and the selectors. That's the scenario that Shane Watson has avoided by stepping down as Michael Clarke's deputy, for if his disappointing form continued at the start of this year's England tour, an ugly mid-Ashes axing might have eventuated.
Of course, by then he may not have been vice-captain anyway, for John Inverarity's panel might have demoted Watson from the role in naming the squad. If so, Watson has successfully sniffed the breeze. But that is neither here nor there. What matters now is that two questions need answering. Is Watson worth his place in the XI for the first Test at Trent Bridge? And who should replace him as Clarke's second in command? Neither has a clear-cut answer.
The matter of the vice-captaincy is the most pressing issue, for the naming of Australia's Ashes squad is rapidly approaching. But first the selectors must decide what they want from their new deputy. Do they want a back-up, plain and simple, someone who is capable now of stepping in if Clarke is injured? Or, given that Clarke's back problems are unlikely to allow him significant longevity in the game, has the time come to groom the next full-time captain?
The problem is knowing who that will be. Based on current form, how many members of the side can the selectors predict with confidence will still be in the XI one or two years from now? Watson's place in the team is far from secure, but apart from Clarke, whose is?
Perhaps the selectors flagged their choice in Delhi when Matthew Wade, the wicketkeeper, was appointed vice-captain to Watson. In many ways Wade would be the logical pick. His work in India was mixed at best but it would take an extended run of poor form for him to lose his place. He has long been viewed as a man with leadership potential, and by choosing him the selectors could hedge their bets.
If down the track they decide he is the man to follow Clarke, he will be well prepared. But if another leader emerges, they can invoke the wicketkeeping workload argument, as when Ricky Ponting was preferred ahead of vice-captain Adam Gilchrist as Steve Waugh's successor. At 25, Wade should have a long international future and he already has more Test-match experience than Gilchrist had when he first captained Australia. He could also fill the role in all three formats, unlike some of the candidates.
The dearth of other leadership options was apparent during the third Test in Mohali last month, when Clarke was off the field nursing his sore back and Watson was at home in Sydney. The reins were temporarily handed to Brad Haddin, who was not even part of the original squad and was playing his first Test for 14 months as a late replacement for the injured Wade.
Haddin is a fine leader and will provide valuable support to Clarke during the Ashes tour, though it will most likely be off-field back-up. Unless, that is, the selectors spring a surprise and give Haddin the vice-captaincy on a short-term Ashes basis. There could be worse options, especially given his strong batting form in the Sheffield Shield last summer. He could either play as a specialist batsman or take back the gloves from Wade, though the latter course appears unlikely.
Ed Cowan is another candidate who would provide Clarke with thoughtful, mature on-field support. Besides Clarke and the naturally fleet-footed Steven Smith, Cowan was the batsman who adapted best to the difficult conditions in India. He still needs to find a way to turn his starts into bigger scores in order to lock down his place in the side. But Geoff Marsh was a sound and loyal deputy to Allan Border during another challenging era despite a Cowan-like average hovering in the low to mid-30s.
Cowan's opening partner David Warner briefly held the vice-captaincy of the ODI side in 2011-12 when Watson was injured, and Inverarity said at the time Warner had "considerable leadership potential". He is close to Clarke, but it is questionable whether he yet has the maturity to be the Test deputy. If Wade gets the job, Warner could be the type to leapfrog him to the captaincy when Clarke retires, form and development permitting.
Are there any other options? Peter Siddle? Few would begrudge him the honour, but Australia are loath to put bowlers in charge. An outsider like George Bailey? Unlikely. Whoever it is will be only a tweaked back away from becoming Australia's 45th Test captain, as Watson discovered when he became the 44th. Now he must wonder what his Test future holds.
If by Ashes time he is bowling, he will be a far more attractive proposition. The balance of the side looked askew when he was at No. 4 as a specialist batsman with Wade at No. 6 to accommodate an allrounder. On batting form alone, Watson cannot keep being selected indefinitely, for his average in the past two years is 24.11 and it is two and a half years since he has scored a Test hundred.
Against England's fast bowlers he should be more effective than he was against India's spinners, and if he is bowling he should be part of the team for the first Ashes Test. But Moises Henriques showed in India there are other allrounders ready to grasp their opportunity. If Watson makes a poor start to the tour, he could be gone. At least now that won't mean the embarrassment of axing the vice-captain mid-series.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here