Watson on Australia's spin challenge: How to tackle Ashwin, Jadeja and Axar?
Former Australia allrounder explains what the visitors need to do, to not only survive but also thrive in India
Australia's batters are trying to cram for the India exam during a nearly week-long training camp in Bengaluru. The test of R Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja, and Axar Patel on a spinning surface likely awaits them in Nagpur.
It's an exam former Australia allrounder Shane Watson has faced before. One he freely admits he was challenged by. He went on four Test tours of India and scored a hundred in Mohali. That was in 2010 facing Harbhajan Singh and Pragyan Ojha as an opener at the peak of his powers.
Ashwin and Jadeja in 2013, batting in the middle order on some rank turners, was an entirely different proposition. If Watson had his time again, he would think differently and play differently.
"One thing I didn't really do [in India] was just accept what I had at that moment in time, instead of trying to be someone else," Watson told ESPNcricinfo. "I was thinking, 'Should I use my feet this time to get out and cover the ball from spinning or should I sit deep in the crease', instead of going, 'Well this is what I've got right now, and this is the best way for me to try and have success.'
"For me, it was going away from using cross-bat shots off the back foot in particular, which is one of my strengths outside of turning conditions.
"Using a straight bat to be able to hit off the back foot through the off side or the leg side. I wish I had got that through my head and then developed that instinct earlier because it's much lower risk. All the good players, especially from India, very rarely do they use cross-bat shots, especially for a pull shot. They'll hit it with a straight bat to be able to hit it through the leg side."
Jadeja looms large over Australia's right-handersWatson fell to Jadeja's left-arm spin in Delhi during the 2013 series, when Jadeja snared seven wickets in the match, and has played with him at Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings in the IPL. Watson believes Jadeja's pace and unrelenting accuracy make him a huge threat to both edges in turning conditions.
"Facing him when the ball is turning compared to when the ball is not turning is just chalk and cheese," Watson said. "It's like you're facing a different bowler when the ball is turning because he's flatter, he's faster, he's accurate all the time. He's always at the stumps.
"One will turn or one will skid through. He's very hard to be able to work through as a right-hander, to find a method that's going to not just survive but also score runs.
Obviously Australia has got some really good players of spin in there with Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne. They've got a number of lefties as well which will negate Jadeja a bit more with the ball just turning in. If I had my time again, I would definitely play with a straighter bat to Jadeja."
Axar is a known unknown to AustraliaAxar has terrorised visiting Test teams in India with his variety of left-arm spin since bursting onto the scene against England in 2021. No Australian has faced him in Test cricket yet. Watson faced Axar in the IPL and found him a different proposition to Jadeja, yet equally uncomfortable.
"Axar's angle is what makes him really hard to line up," Watson said. "I didn't face him in Test cricket but I always found him really difficult to play even in T20 cricket because of his release point. He's not low round arm, but he's round arm and he bowls from quite wide on the crease, and with the angle that the ball comes in I was never able to really line it up. And then if the ball is turning it just seems like the ball is turning a lot more because of the angle.
"It's different to Jadeja because Jadeja is normally a bit closer to the stumps and he doesn't create as much angle with the ball coming into the right-hander from his release point.
"Axar is at the stumps all the time. It's going to be pretty challenging. He's a fair bit taller and his release point is still pretty high. But you don't feel like his bounce is a threat as much because he does get balls to skid through.
"The guys playing are going to have to get used to that angle and find a way to be able to line that up. Once the guys line it up they'll be okay, but it can take a bit of time to work that out."
Ashwin's amazing skill an ever-present challengeAustralia will have at least four left-handers in the top seven. They could possibly play five if Cameron Green isn't passed fit and Matt Renshaw retains his place at No.6 after returning to Test cricket in Australia's previous match against South Africa in Sydney
In Watson's experience, Ashwin's skill level and control makes him dangerous against Australia's right-handers as well, especially if there is bounce and sharp turn.
"It's a bit easier as a right-hander but when the ball is turning and sort of jumping out of either the rough or the fresh part of the wicket, he's relentless," Watson said. "He hardly gives you a free ball to be able to score off.
"He's incredibly skilled. It's not just getting the ball spinning with the occasional one that's not going to turn. He's got a lot of variations through his flight and pace that he still can land exactly where he wants. So even as a right-hander, when the ball's not turning that much it's a much easier challenge. I just batted on off stump and hit straight to the leg side knowing that unless one really explodes and I get caught at bat-pad, I'm not really exposed to that.
"Whereas when the ball is turning, coming back into my stumps, it's much more challenging to be able to try and cover that ball coming in when there's plenty of guys around the bat."
Proactivity is the keyWatson admits he didn't need to be that proactive during his Mohali century because of the quality of the surface.
"It was a really nice wicket," Watson said. "The ball didn't really turn much. I was facing a lot of Harbhajan Singh in that innings and I was able to be really patient. It was quite a slow hundred. At that moment in time, I wasn't being proactive against spin, I was just waiting for a loose ball.
"It makes it easier when it's a truer wicket. Whereas the other times I've been in India, even in the first session there's been times where the ball has spun out of the fresh part of the wicket, which makes more opportunities for the bowler to get you out. But it's also harder to just try and be patient and wait for a loose ball because you're really just a sitting duck waiting for them to get you out."
While Watson is an advocate for Australia's batters to find their own method and stick to it, he believes the blueprint is there from the way some of his team-mates played on past tours to India.
"The guys who have done it the best are the ones who are either really quick on their feet and get down and cover the spin, and or they're really good at just getting back and allowing the ball to spin and then playing the ball," Watson said.
"I think of Damien Martyn who did incredibly well in that 2004 series, especially in Chennai where he played back and allowed the ball to spin. I think about Matt Hayden's transformation as a player of spin where he'd either sweep or as soon as the ball was slightly flighted he would use his feet and hit dead straight. Michael Clarke was a great player of spin. His ability to be able to use his feet to get out when the ball was slightly flighted, then when it wasn't to get back deep in his crease to let the ball spin, those are the guys who had the most success when the ball was turning quite extreme.
"They've got a good method but they are proactive to be able to get off strike, get down the other end, but also put pressure on the bowler.
"But being proactive all the time, every ball in Test matches, it takes a lot out of you physically but especially mentally because you've got to be really sharp all the time."
Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo