Watson's technical tangle
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 The operative word in the Australian set-up back then was "performance", which now seems to have been replaced by "promise" and "potential".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.
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.