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The Shane Watson-sized gap that's upsetting Australia's T20I balance

In modern T20 cricket, genuine allrounders like Watson are as rare as Faberge eggs, and just as valuable

Matt Roller
Matt Roller
There have been a number of breakout stars in this T20 World Cup, but perhaps the best of them has not been on the pitch. Ever since his first game as a commentator, Shane Watson has provided a sharp and incisive, even inquisitive, voice on the tournament's broadcast.
He gave an early example on his World Cup commentary debut. South Africa were rebuilding against Glenn Maxwell while four wickets down in the tenth over in their opening match. "What I'd really like here from Aaron Finch is for him to bring up this midwicket," Watson said. "I want David Miller to have to take a risk, hitting across the line at this early stage of his innings." Right on cue, Miller knocked an early single out to the boundary-rider.
In Australia's second game, Watson realised within a single shot that Sri Lanka would look to target the weak link in their bowling attack - the combination of Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis. "He's set his intentions," he said, after Charith Asalanka slog-swept Maxwell's first ball for six. "The Sri Lankan team game plan, you can see it: that fifth bowler, they're going to be lining him up." Maxwell and Stoinis would concede 51 runs in four overs between them.
There was an irony in Watson pointing all this out. It has gone unnoticed that this is Australia's first-ever T20 World Cup without Watson in the squad. The result has been that balancing their side has been an issue that has dogged them throughout the tournament.
Australia's general dismissiveness of the format meant that T20 World Cups rarely saw the best of Watson, although he had a fine tournament in 2012, spearheading their run to the semi-finals. But across his career, he was a hall-of-fame T20 player: along with Andre Russell and Sunil Narine, he is one of three men to win the IPL's MVP award twice; only Kieron Pollard exceeds both his total runs and wickets tallies.
As such, the gap he has left since his last T20I - the defeat to India in Mohali in 2016 - has been vast. Under Justin Langer, Australia spent three years balancing their side by picking five specialist bowlers including Ashton Agar at No. 7, only to rip up that blueprint on the eve of this World Cup. For four of their five group games, they picked an extra batter instead, leaving Maxwell, Stoinis and Mitchell Marsh to fill in as their fifth bowler.
"If we get seduced into looking purely at match-ups, then you probably go away from your own strengths quite a bit"
Aaron Finch
All three might loosely be categorised as allrounders, but none is a genuine one in the sense Watson was. Across Watson's T20I career, he was involved with either bat or ball for 33.3 balls on average: he faced 17.3 balls per appearance, and bowled 16.0. None of Maxwell (15.0/9.0), Marsh (18.7/6.7) and Stoinis (9.3/8.2) comes close to that figure.
"It can be a tough balancing act," Finch said on Wednesday, the eve of their semi-final against Pakistan. "The fact that we've got the three allrounders in Maxwell, Marsh and Stoinis to bowl them four overs has been really beneficial for us. We know how good Maxi can be in the powerplay but also through the middle overs when the match-ups are right and that's given us a lot of confidence to be able to go in with the four specialist bowlers plus the allrounder.
"That's probably something that we've wrestled with in the past. It obviously makes it a really tough decision, but having those allrounders there, especially ones who offer so much flexibility to the side… it does give us a lot of flexibility with the selection."
Finch accepted that Pakistan's string of five right-handers in their top six would make a recall for Agar's left-arm spin a tempting option, but hinted that Australia would maintain their existing balance.
"We obviously look at the opposition, their strengths and weaknesses, and what resources we have got to match up against that, but we also have to look at what we do really well and stay true to that," he said. "If we get seduced into looking purely at match-ups, then you probably go away from your own strengths quite a bit. That's really important to keep in mind - that it's not purely just based on what the opposition looks like, it's also about how we want to structure up our 20 overs with the ball."
Picking the extra batter means that teams can target Australia's fifth bowler, as Sri Lanka demonstrated; picking the extra bowler renders their top order unable to keep attacking after early wickets, as shown in their struggle to 125 against England. The balance that Watson used to offer them is hugely missed.
Australia are not the only team grappling with this: England have gone batting-heavy throughout the tournament, while Pakistan have gone in with five specialist bowlers; New Zealand started with an extra batter, but changed to a bowling-heavy structure after their first game.
The results of this week's semi-finals will not prove that one strategy is inherently better than the other. But the fact that all four teams have wrestled with decisions over balance makes one thing clear: in modern T20 cricket, genuine allrounders like Watson are as rare as Faberge eggs, and just as valuable.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98