Clarke needs Watson's best
To beat South Africa in what he has called the biggest match of Australia's summer and what is arguably the most significant of his captaincy so far, Michael Clarke is looking for a command all-round performance from Shane Watson on his return to the side from a calf strain.
Though he has often flattered to deceive across a Test career punctuated all too often by injuries, Watson looms as a critical point of difference for the tourists at Newlands, on a dry pitch and abrasive square that appears likely to be favourable to batsmen before developing into fertile ground for reverse swing.
While South Africa have juggled their batting order and bowling options over the series in an effort to cover for the hole left by Jacques Kallis, Clarke and Australia are being reinforced by an all-round option at exactly the right time. Clarke's mentor Shane Warne prospered with Rajasthan in the inaugural IPL by making Watson feel wanted and offering him a lead role in his plans. It seemed no coincidence that Warne's arrival in Cape Town as a spin consultant was followed by Clarke's warmest words about Watson for some time.
"I think Watto offers a hell of a lot as an allrounder, there's no doubt about it," Clarke said. "I made it very clear to Watto from day one that I think he's had the potential to be the best allrounder in the world. I think I said when I took over the captaincy that the only one that stands out to me as a better allrounder than him was Jacques Kallis, and now Jacques has retired. I still have the same beliefs. I still think Watto is as gifted an international cricketer as there is - bat, bowl and field.
"His power game is unbelievable. I think we've seen a fair bit of that. I know there's a lot of talk about his conversions, turning 50s into 100s. Watto has been very open about that and he would love to score more hundreds. And I think he's started. You look at his last 12 months - his success with the bat in England and Australia - he's turning those 50s into 100s, and I do believe his bowling has a huge importance to our team. Number one, because of how good he is. Number two, because it gives you that extra bowling option.
"Watto can open the bowling, Watto can bowl reverse-swing. He bowls somewhere between 130 and 140kph. To be able to be a top order batter and do that, there's not many players in the world that have that gift. If you have the luxury of having a player of Watto's calibre that can bat and bowl it just makes a huge difference."
Watson's inclusion in place of either Alex Doolan or Shaun Marsh may be the only change to the Australian XI, with James Pattinson considered the only other possible inclusion should the selectors choose to withdraw Ryan Harris from the firing line little more than a week before he is due to undergo knee clean-out surgery in Australia. Though Harris has fought his share of doubts on this trip, Clarke said a generous break between matches and Watson's availability as a fourth seam option would make a change less likely.
"I think the fact we've had four-day Test matches that helps, a day off for the boys yesterday. The bowlers we're facing in the nets they all look completely fine," Clarke said. "No doubt it's more mentally [a challenge] than anything else. We've come off the Australian summer where everyone's probably mentally fatigued. But tell me a Test match through my career I haven't been mentally fatigued.
"The fact is that physically the guys are in really good shape, they're fit and healthy and there's no injuries at this stage. That's an unbelievable achievement by the support staff to keep every player on the park. By the time the game starts mentally I think they'll be ready to go. My personal view is if the selectors are going to make a change. I can't imagine it being about resting someone because they're not fresh. I think it would be you're dropping someone to choose the best XI."
Clarke has acknowledged that his men did not adapt to the subtler qualities of the Port Elizabeth surface anywhere near as effectively as they had to a swift and capricious Centurion pitch. To that end the tourists have been training assiduously around dealing with the old ball better as both batsmen and bowlers. To a man they are eager to make the most of the chance to win a series against the world's top team.
"It's as exciting a challenge as you have, I think everybody was excited about way we played against England and beating such a good team 5-0 but as a player this is as exciting," Clarke said. "You are playing the No. 1 side in the world in their own back yard and you have a chance to beat them.
"This would be an amazing achievement by this team to win this Test match and as an individual player who has played a lot of cricket around the world if this doesn't excite you you are in the wrong sport. We are excited by the tough challenge in front of us and what an achievement it would be."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here