July 30, 2013

Watson's technical tangle

While Shane Watson needs to be aware of his front-foot problem, he can't afford to be consumed by it
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Shane Watson has been called a lot of names over the last few days - social media is abuzz with terms like "poor loser" and "selfish". His attitude, his judgement, and his future in the Australian side have all been questioned. Supremely talented, yet never the most popular player, Watson has become something of a punching bag for fans and critics alike.

Though the entire Australian team has failed to live up to the pre-series hype, Watson has been ridiculed the most. He has been accused of getting out in an identical fashion (lbw) as well as wasting precious reviews on decisions that were pretty straightforward.

While one can fault him on the second count, it is rather harsh to criticise him beyond a point for the former - a technical blooper can only be corrected in due course. Yet, the fact is, Watson and Michael Clarke are the only two proven world-class players in this Australian line-up who seem to have the potential to resurrect their flailing fortunes.

There was a time in Australian cricket - when Allan Border took charge from Kim Hughes in the early 1980s - that they lost six straight Tests and endured a hammering from West Indies and England. Border then inspired a young team to win the World Cup in 1987 and regain the Ashes in 1989. For the next 15 years just about every cricketer who wore the coveted baggy green was capable of winning matches on his own. The operative word in the Australian set-up back then was "performance", which now seems to have been replaced by "promise" and "potential".

That has made the likes of Watson come into focus, and his dismissals stand out. At one level, you can't help but feel for him - you see him do everything it takes to avoid the ball hitting his pads, though he fails. At another, you realise that there is no place to hide at the top of the order; if there's a weakness and the opposition knows about it, you better sort yourself out overnight or be prepared to look like a fool. That's what is happening with Watson - he knows that he has been found out, he knows that Anderson and Co are targeting his pads. He's trying different ways to avoid it, yet nothing is working.

Watson's problem is his long front-foot stride, which goes right across the stumps. To counter the disadvantages of going too far across, he opens up his shoulders even when he is playing the ball straight down the ground or through the off side. While this method allows him to play around his pads, it also makes his bottom hand more dominant than it ideally should be. At the moment, though, the dominant bottom hand is the least of his problems, it's the moving ball (both in the air and off the surface) that's giving him a migraine.

It's easier for Watson to protect his pads when the ball isn't moving much, for that gives him the freedom to reach out for the ball and play it in front of the pads. But in England, especially while opening the innings, this approach is bound to spell doom. As an opener, one must make the slight technical adjustment of allowing the ball to come close and play as late as possible, but in Watson's case that's inviting trouble, for the big front foot right across the stumps is too large a target to miss.

Critics are busy questioning the role of coaches and video analysts in identifying and mending the problem, but while much of it sounds good in theory, it's tricky in practice. Watson's front foot going across stems from the fact that his head falls towards the off side when he takes his stance. Your feet follow your head, and if the head is on top of the off stump when you start moving, the front foot will also land around the off stump.

Watson tried to address his problem in the only way he could, considering the shortage of time between matches and innings - by taking stance slightly outside leg stump. Unfortunately that didn't work out at Lord's. Going forward, he might look to try to get his head in the right position too (above the toes while taking his stance) but that adjustment is going to take a lot longer.

Kohli's head also falls towards the off side when he takes stance. But instead of lunging forward with a big stride, Kohli has cut down his front-foot movement drastically, which in turn allows him to play late

Watching Watson reminds me of Virat Kohli and how he made the right adjustments. Kohli's head also falls towards the off side when he takes stance. But instead of lunging forward with a big stride, Kohli has cut down his front-foot movement drastically, which in turn allows him to play late. He has also opened up his front foot, which makes it possible for him to play straight and not around his legs every time the ball is within the stumps. Kohli, though, is a lot shorter than Watson, so it's possible for him to find that balance with a short stride; Watson might find himself in a tangle if he shortened his stride.

Sachin Tendulkar too, early in his career, had a similar problem that made him susceptible to deliveries that came in sharply. His method of dealing with the problem was, perhaps, the best one, for it eliminated that flaw completely from his game. He started to stand upright in the stance and also stopped leaning on the bat while waiting for the bowler to deliver. The front foot stopped going across. Additionally this change helped him achieve greater balance while playing his shots.

The biggest problem Watson will face while walking out to bat at Old Trafford is that he will have to find a way to become aware of his lbw problem without being consumed by it. He can't afford to assume that the problem doesn't exist; yet he can't be obsessing over it too much.

Even if he is acutely aware that England's bowlers will be trying to expose his weakness and will be targeting his pads, he simply can't assume that every delivery is going to be heading towards his pads. If that happens he will start playing inside the line to almost every delivery and end up nicking a straight ball to the wicketkeeper.

It's a tightrope walk for Watson, and he needs to rely on skill and conviction to take him through.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricket_theBestGame on August 2, 2013, 4:28 GMT

    akash, your articles are always well thought out and informative.

    "Even if he is acutely aware that England's bowlers will be trying to expose his weakness and will be targeting his pads, he simply can't assume that every delivery is going to be heading towards his pads. If that happens he will start playing inside the line to almost every delivery and end up nicking a straight ball to the wicketkeeper. "

    almost exactly what happend !

  • H_Z_O on July 31, 2013, 19:22 GMT

    Contd.

    In fact, Watson's record in Australia is worse than all of England's top 5. So there's a definite argument that he's, at best, a number 6 batsman in Tests.

    I think he's talented, in terms of his ability to play shots, but he lacks the mentality of a Test match top order player. Test batting isn't just about what you do with the bat, it's about what you have between your ears. In Watson's case, it looks like he's got Candy Floss between his.

    If, as some have said, this is his last series, I think he'll be remembered as the man who wasted so much natural ability. Despite his stats being better, he's never been the match-winner Freddie was. What's worse, he should have been aiming so much higher than even that. He could, and should, have been Australia's answer to Kallis.

    And yet now, if you were to mention Watson and Kallis in the same breath you'd be laughed at, and rightly so. Kallis has delivered on his ability; Watson hasn't (as yet) and time may be running out to do so.

  • H_Z_O on July 31, 2013, 19:12 GMT

    @Peter James Warrington better confirmation bias than stating incorrect stats on a site where it's not exactly hard to check them.

    Firstly, you said "for an average of 35, half of it not opening" which is untrue. He's had 50 Test innings as an opener. He has batted just 79 Test innings in total. Even if I were to ignore this series, we would have 46 innings opening out of a total of 75. In both cases comfortably over 60%.

    Secondly, you said "there is the average of 50, when opening" which is untrue. His average as an opener is 41.75. And even if we disregard this series, it's 43.06. And even if I take the 2009-2011 component of your comment he averaged 43.67.

    Now if we look at Watson's average as an opener outside of Australia, it gets even worse (35.84). His away record at 3 is not too dissimilar (32.16). Yes, he does well opening at home, but even then his record in Australia as an opener is considerably worse than Cook's, despite having played more innings.

    Contd.

  • dpeerwani on July 31, 2013, 19:06 GMT

    Its elementary, Mr. Watson.

  • SantyJ on July 31, 2013, 18:07 GMT

    Watson should make a SOS call to his Rajasthan Royals captain - Rahul Dravid, arguably the best overseas test batsman in England in this century. I am sure he will get some great tips to work around this technique issue.

    Also, I think Watson gets measured on a very different scale by the media/pundits/fans. He has scored 30's with the bat, bowled testing overs with new/old ball and caught almost everything that came his way in the slips..which isnt as bad as some of the other Aussie performances in this series.

    May the forces be with Watson!

  • dummy4fb on July 31, 2013, 17:49 GMT

    Every successful batsman possesses a "weak point" in his technique. Not surprisingly, it is upto the bowlers to exploit it. This is the very essence of the battle between a batsman and a bowler. Watson is an extremely talented batsman - there is no doubt about that. His strokemaking ability, I'm certain, is the envy of several others. However, it has come to a point where he is now focussing on his weakness rather than his strengths. Lets be realistic - over the duration of Watson's career, he has, no doubt, faced a plethora of inswinging deliveries aimed towards his pads which he has successfully played. So.. he must have done something right in those cases. He needs to understand what he does right and attempt to replicate that. The body works like a machine. Muscle memory can do wonders. The only cure for this flaw is by consistent practice in the nets to the point where his front foot, by muscle memory, does not get planted on off stump. The rest will take care of itself.

  • dorothydix on July 31, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    There is far too much criticism of Watson and his technique. There happens to be a specialist batting coach with the Australian team. It is his job to sort this technical problem out , simple as that. There is all this support staff but basic batting techniques within the Australian team have not been solved for a number of years now. Until Australia find an effective way of helping the players don`t expect change. Players can only improve with help. Clearly its not happening so don`t place all the blame on the players who are trying the best they know.

  • abcxii on July 31, 2013, 10:02 GMT

    Aakash Chopra is spot on. Only because he has vast experience as an opening batsman all over the world pitches.

  • android_user on July 31, 2013, 9:30 GMT

    How about we focus on getting the best out of these players for the ashes and at least put up a fight? saying things like oh he has been found out, cant bat no more. Just look at the history of the game Gilchrist was found out, Taylor was found out, Steve Waugh was found out, Atherton was found out, Gooch was found out, Flintof was found out, Seewag was found out, does any one want me to continue??? ho and one other thing Didnt Australia carry Mark Taylor for 2 years while he struggled to make any meaning full runs? Some times thing you people actually think you are fans when in fact are wannabe experts

  • android_user on July 31, 2013, 8:07 GMT

    Watson has had years of chances. He is a walking wicket and lucky to be in the team. odi and t20 sure but he is not test quality. I could probably get him lbw at this point. Drop him and move on.