Is Watson ready to captain Australia?
Shane Watson (Image: AFP)
It seems increasingly unlikely that Australia’s now vaunted leader Michael Clarke will participate in the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne.
And assuming that the deputy steps into the sheriff’s role should he be injured, Shane Watson will captain a national team in front of 60,000-plus people on the biggest stage in world cricket, having seldom done so to 40-odd people at Shield level on North Sydney Oval.
There is an old seafarers saying on the quality of leadership that says ‘anyone can steer a ship when the sea is calm’. But the spotlights and interest that surround any ordinary Boxing Day Test will now be concentrated and magnified in the direction of a rookie captain.
The swell on this ocean just increased to challenging levels.
Yet arguably more of a concern is the worrying form of Australia’s overworked all-rounder who may be asked to bowl 20 overs an innings, bat at no.4 and fill the captain’s substantial run scoring and leadership void.
A heady task for a man in superlative form, let alone one still obviously feeling his way back into match fitness.
At peak fitness and form Shane Watson has the ability to be one of the most damaging batsmen and dangerous first change bowlers in the world. When Australia went searching for an answer to the Flinthoff phenomenon of 2005, they found it and potentially much more in Watson.
Bowling wise his record in Test matches is excellent. The cliched line being that he has a knack for snaring crucial wickets. Cliches are rooted in truth.
When Ben Hilfenhaus was injured early in the first Test, it necessitated that Watson play a much larger role with the ball, a job he took on with characteristic heart and skill.
He took the important wickets of Mahela Jayawardene in the first innings and that of the century maker Dilshan in the second.
However, it was a workload that looked to be wearing out an all-rounder that needs more bowling work like he needs another calf injury.
Watson seemed spent mid way through the final days play. He had bowled more overs in a Test match than he ever has. For his sake it would be refreshing if Australia could keep the full compliment of bowlers in a match for its duration.
Aside from arguments over the workload, it’s not the bowling side of Watson’s significant ability that is of concern. It is his position at no.4 in the batting order that may be cause for anxiety.
It could be that the increased workload explains his effort on the second innings of the first Test. Any batter is susceptible early, particularly one that had already bowled 20 overs.
It was the method by which he went about his first dig that seems to becoming worryingly common. He looked unsure and somewhat limited in a staid innings of 30 and certainly wasn’t the dominate force that he has looked in the past, and Australia needs him to be in the future.
These introverted performances since returning at no.3 and no.4 suggest opening might be his natural Test position. Watson averages over 40 when facing the new ball but this average slides dramatically the further down the order he plays.
A captain leads from the front, and you cannot get much more in front than opening the batting on Boxing Day in Melbourne.
Watson is an essential part of this Australian team and a corner stone of a side that has high individual ambitions and lofty team goals.
However, many of these ambitions have been manifested and nurtured through Clarke’s renaissance as a team leader. Watson, it was noted, had been taking captaincy tips from Ricky Punting through the week.
It would be unwise for him not to seek similar counsel from Australia’s current main man.
Watson will be under enormous pressure on Boxing Day. He is short on runs and is being bowled much more than anyone would like him to.
Being captain may afford him the luxury of choosing when and how often he bowls, but there will be many more significant and distracting challenges that go with such a responsibility.
Great players rise to such occasions, as Clarke has proven. And if Clarke is injured, it might be the moment Watson steps out of that enigmatic shadow called ‘potential’ and into the more rarefied air of ‘champion’.