We’ve been saying for years now that Shane Watson’s presence in the Australian Test cricket team – warranted or not – brings with it an imbalance that belies his returns.
How many times have you read the words, ‘Shane Watson remains under a cloud for the upcoming Test…’ in the last say, even just two years?
With Watson under yet another cloud for Sydney, and with elegant Tasmanian batsman Alex Doolan added to the squad as batting cover for Watson specifically, we once again face the situation where the imbalance Watson’s presence produces means that replacing him for the fifth Test might actually involve more than just the one change.
Australian coach Darren Lehmann has again stated his preference for playing an allrounder in the Test side, and has also stated that for Watson to hold his place in Sydney, he must be 100 percent fit and able to bowl to full capacity.
This all sounds very good as a sound grab, but I’m quite sure that the desire to get through this series and achieve a 5-0 whitewash with the same XI will overrule these well-meaning sentiments.
What’s more, with Watson’s second innings unbeaten 83 being so crucial to Australia’s fourth Test win, I’m sure that will give him some leeway around the selection table, even if ‘full capacity’ is a relative term as far as Watson’s bowling goes.
I’m sure that if Watson is fit enough to bowl five or six overs a day in Sydney, even if over a couple of spells, he’ll hold his spot.
However, let’s just assume for a minute that Lehmann’s post-match comments hold true.
We would quickly find ourselves in the uncomfortable place again where replacing Watson is not just a simple one-for-one equation.
Just over twelve months ago, I wrote in a column wondering Watson’s worth to the Test side, that the selectors:
“… have brought a funny situation upon themselves over time. Their insistence on playing an all-rounder evidently comes at the price of imbalance when theoretically it should be helping the balance of the team.”
This still rings true now, despite Watson’s much-improved performance.
Doolan has been brought into the squad as a top-order batsman, and you would have to assume that he would go straight into the number three spot if Watson doesn’t get up.
I know there is a train of thought out there that suggests batsmen should come into the Test side lower down the order, but I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, and Doolan doesn’t strike me as being a genuine middle order option anyway.
By the same token, and as much as it would get Ian Chappell’s oft-stated goat, Michael Clarke moving to number three is not really an option either, as it would leave a relatively inexperienced 4-5-6 rather vulnerable. If Watson is out, Doolan has to bat at three.
But this then means that Australia loses a bowler, and even at less-than-capacity, Watson’s economical bowling has been very handy for Michael Clarke this series.
So to replace Watson as a top-order bat and as a fourth seamer, Australia will have to look at bringing James Faulkner in as well, meaning new number six George Bailey would suddenly be in the firing line.
Now some of you – plenty of you, maybe – will argue that that’s not really an issue, and that Bailey is probably lucky to be in the side in the first place, let alone struggling to hold his spot.
He would admit himself that he has hasn’t quite produced the runs he’d like to have this series, but even so, he’s done everything asked of him so far.
He batted selflessly in getting the team to their desired point of declaration in Perth, probably even quicker than they had hoped after he took down Jimmy Anderson in such spectacular record-equalling fashion.
He did make a duck in his only innings in Melbourne, and even if the suggestion is that he looked out of place in those 19 balls, more than a bit of doubt remains as to whether he should have been given out, after scant DRS evidence overruled Aleem Dar’s original onfield decision.
And that’s not a defence of Bailey, for what it’s worth, that’s just what happened.
What Doolan’s inclusion in the squad for Sydney does do, however, is give a pointer to the touring squad for South Africa.
I can’t imagine many more than 14 or 15 boarding the plane, in which case there might only be one spare batsman considered. And even if Bailey plays and fails in Sydney, I’m not sure he would be discarded so swiftly after a comprehensive Ashes series win.
If a change is made, though, and wherever that change might come, there is a chance to correct the Watson imbalance.
Doolan coming in at number three could see Watson moving down to the number six spot that so many believe he should always have been occupying.
The ‘traditional all-rounders spot’ as folklore almost demands, the middle order slot means Watson could actually bowl more and still be refreshed enough to produce with the bat. Ideally, coming in at six should have him coming in to face the new ball, too.
In turn, this move would bring an element of future-proofing the Test team, too.
With a proper number three batsman, dare I say it, replacing Watson down the order becomes a lot easier, as it means that Faulkner, or down the track someone like Mitchell Marsh, even, could come in with relatively little disruption.
If Watson can’t fill the number six batting spot, that’s a lot easier to replace or juggle than trying to find a genuine top-order bat capable of bowling 10-15 overs a day.
Such a move might render Bailey’s Test career over as quick as it started, but it might actually leave the Test side in a more balanced and more easily manageable position.
And it might finally reduce, if not completely remove, this long-held and sometimes arguably justified selection reliance on one player.