September 16, 2013

What's up with Watto?

Geoff Lemon
Pilloried for much of the summer before playing a quite brilliant innings at its conclusion, Shane Watson had a funny old Ashes series

It was one of those golden days that a player may be lucky enough to have once in a career, where the world outside the ground slows to a hum, where every strike is crisp and clean as sliced apple, where everything falls solely to the benefit of a man standing still at the eye of his cricketing hurricane.

As Shane Watson walked off The Oval late on the first day of the final Ashes Test, the Australian response to his 176 went three ways. Some soaked up the present, that moment when a cricketer was untouchable. Some wondered if this could be the making of Watson's future. And a great many looked back, to the series lost and the patchiness of Watson's career. "Watson and England both have achieved their first objective this morning," wrote Australian journalist Greg Baum on Twitter. "He's playing in Brisbane."

It was tongue in cheek, but referenced a very real Australian sentiment: that Watson is a liability, a source of trouble, a weakness for opponents to exploit. Two of the last four Allan Border medals for Australia's cricketer of the year have gone to Watson. In the same period, he's generated more home-grown antipathy than anyone. The narrative is of Watson as selfish, demanding and self-absorbed. As with most assessments of public figures, it leans less on evidence than conjecture.

Watson is not helped by having one of the most expressive faces in cricket. On-field, there is always the sense he has just been dealt an injustice. Bowling, his hands fly to his head every other ball, mouth twisting into a lupine O. When hit, he looks aggrieved. Hitting a bowler, he looks righteous. Troubled by one, he looks seasick. Dismissed, he looks betrayed, shaking his head in lamentation at the cruelty. In one Test, edging toward slip, the stump mic picked up an agonised "Ohhh no!" before the ball had even hit the catcher's hands. Watson knew what that edge meant, and the depths of his unhappiness formed a dark sea that lapped into our living rooms.

The tradition of Aussie gruffness says he should pipe down and get on with it. And so we extrapolate: sooky, soft, preoccupied by his own fortunes. The desire to do well is never interpreted as concern for the team. His tortured path to his first hundred is tendered as further evidence. But to criticise Watson here is to forget Ashton Agar's swat at Trent Bridge, Rogers' painful crawl at Durham, Smith's false bravado at The Oval. Added to the mix are genuinely thoughtless moments - publicly coveting the opener's role while Ed Cowan tried to establish a Test career, marginal DRS referrals, frustrated threats of retirement.

Confirmation bias is the filtering of information to support an existing opinion. In this way, negatives from Watson's career accrue while positives are discounted. Partly the angst is down to simple volume of opportunity: he's been in the national line of sight longer than anyone but Michael Clarke. Resentments become disproportionate as the cause persists; we've all lived with someone who raged over bin liners or the location of soap. Nor is the sentiment universal - disapproval is louder than satisfaction, unless it's coming through a motel wall. But it's not just personality. Attitudes to Watson exist not in spite of his talents but because of them.

Australian cricket in my lifetime has always been seduced by the romance of the allrounder. Mostly it's because we never had one. While I was in bunny jumpsuits, the firmament brought Imran, Kapil, Botham and Hadlee into alignment. Australia got Simon O'Donnell. Steve Waugh's bowling ossified along with his spine while we cast envious eyes at Kallis. However great Australia's sides, we were always six and four, straight up and down, the only kid at the party wearing a tie. Commentators circled back to Keith Miller, or in desperation, Dougie Walters. Even Mark Waugh's best offspin or the Wheel of Fortune haircuts of Colin Miller couldn't replicate that unlikeliest thrill of cricket: a man who could make a hundred then bowl the other mob out.

Watson wasn't the next big thing, he was Luke Skywalker. He was talked up by all the last big things. He also proved to have the structural integrity of Mr Potato Head

In this context, Watson wasn't the next big thing, he was Luke Skywalker. He came along, blithe and blond, batting top four in the Shield and bowling straight-out fast. He was talked up by all the last big things. He also proved to have the structural integrity of Mr Potato Head. And so it began, a stop-start career that never let him settle. He's been a bowler who slogs, an opener who bowls as cover, an opener who doesn't and a middle-order lynchpin who can't. His bowling retirements are like Johnny Farnham farewell tours. He's managed to look invincible and incapable; his periods of dominance have never become eras.

Jarrod Kimber brilliantly explored the Australian obsession with the "natural": the ferocious talent who would sweep all before him. When a young Damien Martyn panicked in Sydney, 1994, he was made scapegoat for his team-mates' failings. "Any hopes of him becoming a captain, a legend or even a 10-year player left once he showed in one innings that he was not the one. His papers were stamped 'non legendary'."

Watson has been similarly processed publicly, for a career that couldn't deliver on its entirely unrealistic promise. But in an era short on talent he is not so easily discarded, and frustration with his performance is not entirely fair. At Old Trafford I badgered Darren Lehmann on whether he saw Watson as a proper batsman. "What I do see," said Lehmann, "is when you can play an extra bowler in your top six, it's such an advantage… So as an allrounder, no dramas."

It was an important distinction. And on reflection, my thinking was shaped by an Australian era where Justin Langer was the batting exception for averaging below 50. Clarke's 52.08 is the only remnant of that time. Of 11 top-seven batsmen since Mike Hussey retired, the best are David Warner and Watson, who top 36. The rest range from 35 to 9.

Even against great allrounders, Watson is only a run behind Imran and Miller, and between three and nine ahead of Botham, Kapil, Mankad and Hadlee. His ratio of innings exceeding 50 is the best of the lot, once every second Test, with Miller and Botham closer to one in three, Imran three and a half, and the others toward four and beyond. Of course he doesn't bowl like any of them, averaging fewer than half the overs and wickets per match, but we're talking legends of the game's history.

As the numbers settle, we find ourselves looking at a man who may not have made the best teams of his country's past but is among the best cricketers in his country's present. Those who admire him are less vocal than those who don't. What has plagued his career is uncertainty, and it's here that the real antipathy is born. Ricky Ponting was hounded into retirement because we couldn't stand not knowing when he'd retire. Watson is hounded because we don't know if, when, and in what capacity he's going to deliver.

While resentment manifests itself at a personal level, the bulk of its cause is not inherently personal. If Watson's 176 - and his recent technical work on his lbw problem - can prompt a more consistent phase of his career, concerns about his wicket-taking face will begin to seem strangely less important.

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue of All Out Cricket magazine. For more from this month's AOC, read about the challenges confronting England as they prepare for the Ashes return leg