April 20, 2013

Watson's resignation throws up important questions

Who should replace him? And is Watson still in Australia's best XI?

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Victor on April 23, 2013, 0:56 GMT

    This might be bit drastic but how about Steve O'Keefe. Australia has brought Bob simpson back from retirement and gave him the captaincy so why not bring in some one new and give them the vc.

  • Martin on April 22, 2013, 22:37 GMT

    @Greatest_Game on (April 22, 2013, 20:24 GMT) Not sure what reality you are talking about. In the real reality I have posted about 9 comments on cricinfo in the last 9 months, so, given that in reality I have written very little here lately - I would actually wonder what on earth you are talking about. How very magnanimus of you to not be antagonistic... do keep it up.

  • David on April 22, 2013, 20:24 GMT

    @ 5 wombats. My posts were not meant to claim the superiority or inferiority of ANY team. My sole intention was to demonstrate the fallacy of silly excuses, and to do this using soundly based argument. Thank you for the compliment, but please be clear: I have found much of what you write to bear as little resemblance to reality as does the "bad weather, bad luck" excuses.

    I oppose deliberately antagonistic commentary by anyone, and will defend all, from Aussies to Englishmen to Indians to Kiwis to Zimbabweans. For this reason my nationality is regularly mistaken. It is not where I am from, or whom I support, that motivates me. It is because of my love and respect for this unique game that I take the time & do the research to expose nationalistic rubbish.

    I sincerely hope that Watson is fit and in form for the Ashes. It will make the contest more exciting. That is the joy of the game.

    For the record, I am a South African, living in the USA, but follow all cricket with equal passion.

  • David on April 22, 2013, 19:57 GMT

    Aus lost to SA due to "bad weather & horrific luck." Really.

    Weather: 1st test, Aus 115 up after 1st inngs. 2 tests earlier, Aus were up by 188. SA won by 8 wickets! Bad weather for SA perhaps? NOBODY knows?

    Luck: Duminy snapped his Achilles tendon, could not play, had surgery, & went home in a cast. Horrific.

    Philander out of 2nd test - bummer.

    Kallis yorks Cowan with his 3rd ball - caught & bowled. 6th ball of his next over he squares up Ponting, so beaten he fell over clean bowled. 9 balls later Kallis tears his hamstring & can't bowl. Best all-rounder since Sobers, all-time great, SA's lynchpin, already has 2 ripping dismissals. That's really really bad luck.

    Pattinson bats, scores 42. In 82 overs he bowls spells of 4, 2, 2 & 1. 9.1 overs, 0/45. Uninjured, he conceded more than he scored! Kallis, in 3.3 overs took 2/19. Injured, he scored 58 & 46.

    A "horrific loss" is an injured Kallis, not an injured Pattinson. This "weather & luck" excuse is embarresing. Let it go.

  • Martin on April 22, 2013, 19:05 GMT

    @Greatest_Game on (April 22, 2013, 16:52 GMT) - thank you. It's good how you quote the Aussie players who did not try to hide and did not make excuses. A few posters on here could learn a few things from them. As for Watson - I can't wait for him to walk out to the crease with a bat in his hand at Trent Bridge, always supposing of course that he gets selected in the first place. It'll be fun to watch....

  • josh on April 22, 2013, 17:37 GMT

    I bet they wish they had the depth of NZ with Int quality captains like Taylor, Williamson and Fulton waiting in the wings. Well at least we are doing the Aussies a huge favour by playing Eng 1st they will be so demoralised and beat up after that 2 test encounter that Aussies shd try and take full toll. With Southee, Boult and Bracewell swinging it a mile cant see POMS posting over 150 in their 4 innings.

  • David on April 22, 2013, 16:52 GMT

    @ PFEL. Bad weather & bad luck are poor excuses for losing. Ironically, SA had the worse luck. The Gabba: Duminy lost before taking field. SA played with 10 men. The Oval: Philander couldn't play. Cowan & Ponting lasted 3 balls each in Kallis' 3.3 overs. Pattinson took nothing in 9.1! Ultimately, Aus failed against SA's defence.

    In Perth, the only test without injuries, Aus had NO defence, only cameos, & were crushed.

    Ponting said this about Perth: ""That was them trying to impose themselves on the series and THEY DID IT BETTER THAN I HAVE SEEN ANY TEAM TAKE A GAME AWAY FROM THE OPPOSITION BEFORE … they thoroughly deserved to win this series."

    Clarke, quoted in Brydon Coverdale's article titled "South Africa rightly the best side - Clarke," said "They showed why they're the No.1 Test team in the world." Coverdale began that piece saying "In the end, the best team won. Not the team that played best in Brisbane or Adelaide."

    Ponting, Clarke, & Coverale made no excuses. Why do you?

  • Randolph on April 22, 2013, 14:59 GMT

    Hopefully watto can come back and slay the poms. I mean they could barely beat NZ so are also struggling~

  • Dummy4 on April 22, 2013, 12:16 GMT

    @Meety, I'm not sure Wade should ever get near the captaincy... To me he looks like he gets easily upset and also dwells on things far too much. He has the wrong personality for it I think. I truly think we need at least another 3 or 4 years before we see the next captain emerge.

  • Dummy4 on April 22, 2013, 12:12 GMT

    The problem I see with making Wade VC is that he isn't the best Australian keeper. He's not even the second best. You have Haddin & Paine above him *at least*. Maybe Hartley, too.

    So by all means play Wade - he showed some fight in India with the bat - but he should be there as a batsman only.