Watson faces challenge from Marsh
Conventional wisdom suggests that Shane Watson and Mitchell Marsh could no more squeeze into the same Test team than two wicketkeepers could. In the long-term, that seems true. But in the UAE, where Australia may play two spinners, it is just possible that the selectors will want both Watson and Marsh to provide pace-bowling support to the two frontline fast men.
And that would create a fascinating sub-plot to the tour. Watson, 33, the established allrounder, a man who has captained his country but has also flattered to deceive. Marsh, ten years younger, the raw up-and-comer with lesser credentials but boundless potential. There will be room for only one at home against India, when three fast men and a spinner are picked. Could Watson be fighting for his Test future in the UAE?
At first glance, Marsh appears less ready for Test cricket than Watson was at the same age. Watson debuted at 23; Marsh will debut at 23 if he plays against Pakistan. Watson had played 33 first-class games, Marsh has played 38. Watson had 67 wickets at 28.38; Marsh has 56 at 26.92. Strikingly similar figures so far. But the big difference is in their batting numbers.
Watson made his Test debut with 2355 first-class runs behind him at an average of 47.10, including eight hundreds. Marsh has 1768 runs at 28.51, with only two centuries. In Australia's all-conquering team of the early to mid-2000s, Watson was considered a No. 7 and fifth bowler. If he plays against Pakistan, Marsh will almost certainly bat in the top six. Different eras, different standards.
But a decade after his debut, Watson is still trying to find his niche in the team. "Allrounder" has been taken to mean "all round the batting order". He has batted everywhere from No. 1 to No. 7, including a brief period as a non-bowling No. 4. Injuries have hampered him, but so has his inability to turn his regular starts into big, match-winning scores.
His latest injury was the ankle problem he sustained when he stepped on a ball at training in Brisbane before the team flew out for the one-day tri-series in Zimbabwe. That allowed Marsh to establish himself in the ODI team with two 80-plus scores, and a hat-trick of sixes off Dale Steyn.
Choosing players for Test cricket based on one-day form has hurt Australia in the past - Xavier Doherty in India last year is a notable example - but Mitchell Marsh's 211 for Australia A against India A this winter in a first-class match was encouraging. He is also coming off a Sheffield Shield season that brought 493 runs at 37.92, more runs at a better average than his brother Shaun, albeit without any centuries.
"He's a package, an all-round package and it's really pleasing to see we've got a few of them around at the moment," the national selector Rod Marsh said. "Every team needs an allrounder and we've got two or three now that are looking pretty good."
But Rod Marsh spoke highly of Watson when he announced the squad for the Pakistan Tests.
"Shane Watson is a seasoned campaigner, he's got a pretty good first-class record when you have a look at it, he's got nearly 9000 runs, over 200 wickets, four Test hundreds," Marsh said. "Apart from that he can be as destructive as any batsman in the world and I think he's in a pretty good space at the moment."
When asked if Marsh and Watson could play together in the UAE, Rod Marsh said: "You can fit more than one allrounder in a Test team, yes, but whether it'll happen remains to be seen."
Whatever the UAE tour brings for Mitchell Marsh, it is a step closer to becoming Australia's next long-term allrounder. For his own part, he hopes he can use the Test tour to learn from Watson, and if he makes his debut it will be a bonus.
"It would be a dream come true," he said. "I probably wasn't expecting it to happen this fast, and I've still got to get a game. There's a lot of hard work between now and that Test. We've got the T20s and one-dayers. Fingers crossed I can keep going well in that, and we'll see what happens.
"We all know that Shane Watson's the first picked allrounder in Australia, and he's a world-class player. The biggest thing for me is just being around him, working with him on and off the field. And then if I get the opportunity, we'll see what happens.
"But I'm just looking forward to getting over there; just to be around that squad - it's a very settled Test side, and there's a lot of experience. I'm looking forward to working with Shane Watson as much as I can. He's been a great help for me. I'm really looking forward to that."
Just how much Watson will enjoy being challenged by a man ten years his junior remains to be seen. Last week, he said that the competition for all-round places would only increase with the emergence of James Faulkner as well as Marsh.
"It's a great thing because if there are more options for the selectors to pick from it means that people are continuing to go into every game knowing that they've got to push themselves to the limit to be able to perform for the team," Watson told News Ltd. "Otherwise they [the selectors] will be looking at another option."
In the UAE, they might look at two options side by side. And if Marsh gets that chance and does something special with it, all bets are off.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale