News Analysis

Where to for Watson?

Shane Watson is Australia's vice-captain but he needs to lift his game off the field and on it

Brydon Coverdale
Brydon Coverdale
Shane Watson is swarmed by reporters in Sydney, March 12, 2013

Shane Watson has plenty of questions to answer regarding his Test future  •  Getty Images

The so-called homework task set by Mickey Arthur last week required a great amount of reflection from Australia's players on the way they and the team were performing. Few members of the squad had as much cause for self-assessment as Shane Watson. That is even more so now, after his axing from the side and subsequent departure from the tour. Put simply, Watson needs to lift his game both off the field and on it. He is the vice-captain, but whether he remains so is yet to be seen.
It must be said that the severe penalties handed out to Watson and three other players were not solely the result of failing to complete Arthur's task. Throughout the tour the attitude from the wider playing group has been lax. Players have missed appointments with the team physio, arrived late for team meetings, worn the wrong uniforms - there have been all manner of minor infractions that built up to the team management saying "no more".
But that is all the more reason for the vice-captain to help lead a young side by example. He should have been proactive. He should have been doing everything in his power to help the side lift. If part of that was coming up with ways he and the team could improve, he should have been brimming with ideas. Michael Clarke didn't forget about the task or misunderstand when it was to be completed.
In the past year the Test team has lost three senior men: Ricky Ponting, Michael Hussey and Brad Haddin. That leaves Clarke with an enormous burden and there is a feeling that Watson has not helped him carry it adequately. Perhaps in the homework task he could have highlighted his leadership as an area for improvement. Perhaps not completing the task in an embarrassing week for the team said it all.
After the players were informed of their fate, Watson flew home to Australia to be with his pregnant wife. There is no problem there. But when asked by journalists to comment on the penalty, Watson could have accepted the decision with grace and conceded that he had erred. He could have said Test cricket remained his priority. Instead he called it a "very harsh" punishment and said he would weigh up his future at home. They were not the words of a leader of men.
Watson's relationship with Michael Clarke has never been strong. They are not enemies, but nor are they close confidants. On Tuesday, Pat Howard, Cricket Australia's team performance manager, alluded to "issues" between Clarke and Watson. Upon arriving home in Sydney, Watson said things were "going really well" between himself and Clarke at the moment. His comments in Chandigarh won't have helped that.
If Watson wants to weigh up his future, he would do well to consider his past. And here is a fact that should jolt him: in the past two years, Rob Quiney is the only top-six batsman with a worse Test batting average for Australia. In that time - which corresponds with Watson becoming vice-captain - he has played 13 Tests and averaged 25.20 with the bat. He's made four half-centuries in 24 innings. No hundreds.
Consider some of the players with better batting averages than Watson in that two-year period: Shaun Marsh, Usman Khawaja, Ed Cowan, even James Pattinson. It might seem disingenuous to look only at his batting, for Watson has also collected 19 wickets in that time. But his primary role in the side is as a top-order run scorer. On that alone he is failing to deliver. Watson's experience is valuable but he is not an indispensable member of the team.
It could be argued that Watson's struggles have also coincided with his move down the order. The only two centuries in his 40-Test career came as an opener. But in his time as vice-captain and opener, he scored 192 runs at 20.22 on tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa. A calf injury then ruled him out of the 2011-12 home summer and allowed Cowan and David Warner to settle in as a consistent opening pair.
By the time Watson returned for the next tour of the West Indies, the opening spots were taken and he had to make do at No. 3. His slide down the order continued to No.4 when Phillip Hughes rejoined the side at first drop after Ricky Ponting's retirement. And the lack of runs that began when he was still opening continued. He had looked in reasonable touch in the first two Tests in India but could not survive for an hour in any one of his four innings.
The Mohali Test might have provided some relief for Watson, for it was at this venue, two and a half years ago, that he scored his last Test hundred. Now he won't get the chance to reprise it. Instead, he will be at home, waiting for the birth of his first child. And thinking about his cricketing past and future. He will look back at a disappointing Indian tour, and at an as-yet unfulfilled Test career.
His injury-prone body has not helped. Since his Test debut, he has missed 51 of a possible 91 Tests, the majority through injuries. For now, he has given up bowling in an effort to stay fit, but he has never shown any inclination to give his body a rest by reducing his non-Test commitments, the IPL for example. Chances are he won't be back in India for the fourth Test, but will be for the IPL that follows.
After that, who knows? But if Watson didn't have time for reflection last week, he certainly does now.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here