No. 3 not so elementary for Watson
If a cricket team's character can be defined by that of its captain, then a batting order's stability or otherwise is often dictated by the man who walks to the wicket at No.3. In the past decade the likes of Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid, Jacques Kallis and Kumar Sangakkara have set a high mark for the position, their strengths bolstering the batsmen around them.
Before them the Australian and West Indian Test batting orders of the early 1990s were given their direction by the Nos.3 David Boon and Richie Richardson. While the latter was a little more flamboyant than the former, both were fearless. Were Boon to be unnerved by a pitch or a bowler, the rest of the Australian order would take uneasy note. Were Richardson to be deceived, as he was by Shane Warne on the final day of the 1992 Boxing Day Test at the MCG, there was every chance the rest would be similarly befuddled.
So it was significant that Shane Watson set a jittery marker for Michael Clarke's Australian team in his first innings at No.3. Watson is in the third phase of his Test batting career, having started in the middle order then graduated with some success to an opener's post. His batting is strong, powerful and aggressive. But his mind is given to the occasional bout of the scattershot, and his knack for crease occupation remains under-developed. Watson knew the importance of his position when he walked out to the middle on the third morning of the first Test, and returned to the Garfield Sobers Pavilion bitterly disappointed to make a contribution that did almost as much harm to Australia's cause as any West Indian bowler.
Watson was not called upon until a 50-run stand had been posted, but his first foray into the world of No.3 batsmanship was far from comforting. He could have been out early lbw, padding up to Darren Sammy, and after David Warner perished he played a major role in Ponting's run-out. As Ponting marched off Watson leaned on his haunches and cursed, with good reason. Eight times he has been involved in run-outs in his 33 Tests, a statistic to quicken the pulse of all batsmen to accompany him.
Australia's was racing second ball after lunch, when Watson drove expansively at Kemar Roach and edged into the gloves of Carlton Baugh. His innings had begun at 50 for 1 and ended at 133 for 4, leaving a sizeable salvage job in the hands of Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey. Talented as they are, neither man has attempted to bat at No.3 for Australia, adding gravitas to the notion that such batsmen should be chosen carefully.
When Boon retired in 1996, a wrestle for his position took place over five years. Ponting took the spot in Australia's next Test, but held it for only two more. Justin Langer and Greg Blewett then claimed it with varying degrees of success, but the relentless march of Steve Waugh's team was given noticeable momentum when Ponting returned to the post. Starting with the 2001 Ashes series, he carved up attacks with rare monotony and offered plenty of composure, too.
Watson's entry has come at the end of a period of experimentation, as Usman Khawaja and Shaun Marsh were also granted chances to enter at first wicket down. Both played innings of substance there - Marsh a laudable century on debut in Sri Lanka and Khawaja a strikingly calm half-century to help set-up a thrilling chase against South Africa in Johannesburg. However their limitations, both mental and technical, were laid bare after a time, and Marsh became particularly bereft as the selectors persisted with him over four Tests against India that grew ever more nightmarish amid a sea of Australian successes.
Most of these lessons were learned while Watson convalesced after hamstring and calf injuries. In his absence the team performed strongly, Clarke rotating four bowlers as adroitly as he had five when Watson was available, while the cavalier Warner and circumspect Ed Cowan formed a balanced opening union. Leadership was also in plentiful supply, Brad Haddin serving as an able lieutenant to Clarke though Watson remained the official vice-captain. In this can be found the seeds of Watson's return at No.3 - Marsh's poor form made it the most easily available berth for a returning batsman, and so Watson travelled to the West Indies thinking about the role.
On the second evening, before he went in to bat, Watson indicated that by moving out of the opening post he might also give his body and mind a greater chance of adjusting from the mental demands of bowling to those of batting. He was looking forward to the potential rest it offered, especially as Cowan and Warner stand a chance of making consistent starts.
"There's no doubt the more I do it the more comfortable I'm going to be about waiting my turn to go in," Watson had said. "It's a bit of a different experience to the last couple of years but at least, on the flip-side, it gives me a little bit more time to freshen up even after bowling a few overs today. In that sense, hopefully it'll pay off tomorrow to give me a little bit more time to mentally freshen up. The more I do it the better I'm going to get, the more comfortable I'm going to be at finding the routines to make sure I can switch off, to make sure I'm mentally and physically ready to go when I need to.
"With as much cricket as we do play even having that little bit of time to just chill out, even though you're taking in every ball that's going on out in the middle, but just from a mental perspective it's just going to give me that little bit more time to actually relax and know that I can have a little bit of downtime to be able to get my head ready to start batting."
Watson had plenty of downtime to contemplate following his dismissal, and an unhappy Ponting to accompany him. As capable as he is with the bat and the ball, Watson must find greater composure - both between the wickets and at the batting crease - in order to become the batting barometer of a successful Australian team.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here