It’s not hard to find people who’ll tell you they hate Shane Watson. Our favourite activity after watching sport is hating the people we’re watching.
Most fans choose players they don’t like, just as they’ll choose the ones they’ll never hear a bad word about, according to some arbitrary internal logic that even they probably couldn’t track.
Depending who you talk to, you’ll be told that any or all of Watson, Phil Hughes, Steve Smith, Usman Khawaja, Ed Cowan or David Warner are third-grade hacks.
You’ll be told Hughes is a slasher with no patience and a technique held together by sticky tape, Warner is a baseball slogger whose achievements are flukes, Cowan is a plodder and Smith is a bit-parts merchant.
It took one Test for the voices of Khawaja fans lamenting his absence to be replaced by those stating he would never be a Test player.
As harsh as the assessments are, elite sport is a harsh place. It’s a contest between outliers in terms of skill and ability. Of course scrutiny is intense, and these criticisms are at least reasonable points of debate.
What happens next, though, is that criticisms of performance quickly and savagely become personal. Motives, traits and defects are ascribed with firm conviction to people who the observer has never met.
Thus the problem with Hughes is that he’s a back-block banana farmer. Smith is a failed Warne wannabe who only cares about T20. Michael Clarke is a vapid metrosexual with a raging ego and a man-crush on James Packer. Khawaja is lazy and mentally weak. Cowan is a mouthy smarmy smart-alec elitist book-writing swot.
In this respect, Watson gets more stick than any Australian cricketer, from his own supporters and the opposition. He’s described as selfish and self-absorbed, sulky, preening and arrogant, stupid, pouty, imperceptive and not a team player.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Across articles, Twitter, conversations and radio calls, I’ve made hundreds of snarky asides about Watson. One Ashes Diary video was just two minutes of me berating him via camera. It was the most popular one we released.
Most of these digs are comical, but the jokes are still based on the public domain’s concept of Watson’s personal characteristics.
There is a bizarre presumption that watching them play is enough to deduce what these people are like and how they think.
It may sound stupid, but the most illuminating thing I’ve learned on this tour is that Australia’s cricketers are actually people. Athletes on TV or in stadiums are reduced to characters.
Your response is no different to saying you hate Draco Malfoy or love Frank N. Furter.
Then you sit down in a press conference with them two metres away, and you’re confronted by not just a human being, but someone trying to achieve something under horrifying scrutiny.
At that point, you may like me be surprised by a creeping sense of shame.
Shane Watson in person seems like a perfectly nice guy. He smiles often and genuinely. Leaving the ground, he’ll break away from his teammates to go and thank travelling fans. At a formal drinks event he was happily writing a letter on a program to someone’s absent kid.
Interviewed after his century he was nervous, happy, a little hesitant. He gave each questioner his full attention. There was clear conflict between relief at having broken through, and the poignant knowledge that he hadn’t done it while the series was alive. He looked like he needed a hug.
No doubt if you lived and worked with Watson in the suffocating confines of international cricket, you’d have another perspective again. But the reasons for his targeting by fans have nothing to do with Watson himself.
Front up to any pub, grandstand, hashtag or comment forum and you’ll find people telling you which players they hate and why. They’ll give detailed causes, but the consistency of the phenomenon renders the individual reasoning specious.
When you come down to it, people gain some measure of satisfaction or release by pouring invective on people they don’t know.
Last week in the Bundesliga, Fortuna Dusseldorf fans booed their defender Tobias Levels until he broke down in tears. Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch recalls Ian Ure being similarly regarded, concluding that “the natural state of the football fan is bitter disappointment”.
It’s the kind of harshness that comes with distance from your target. It’s the mentality behind the blind viciousness of online arguments or road rage or a terrace of football fans making gas chamber sounds or hurling bananas on the pitch.
Because the real reason people are happy to say “I hate Shane Watson” isn’t because he doesn’t chat in the slip cordon, or his double fist-pump when he gets a wicket, or his “Oooh!” face when he doesn’t.
The real issue is that he’s not successful enough for us. He has been a good player without being great. He’s had good days but not enough.
The same goes for Khawaja, Cowan, Warner, Hughes, but Watson has been in our line of sight far longer. If any of them stayed round, we’d see a change.
Sporting audiences hate athletes who are less than excellent. That’s why we want to tear them down, because they dared to try and we can’t, we couldn’t, we never got the opportunity, or never imagined we might be capable, or would have been too terrified.
We hate them for even trying, for getting close, the way we scorn the first person to get up and dance.
Impress us with excellence, and the rest is forgiven. Four double centuries in a year, and suddenly we heard far fewer complaints about Michael Clarke’s lifestyle, interests or personality. Imagine the chat if George Bailey had just led an Ashes defeat.
Australian cricket fans will tell you they just want players who get stuck in and try. It’s a level of bullshit to rival our other national myths, like being a country of laidback larrikins when in fact we’re mired in regulation and admonishment.
Ed Cowan got stuck in, tried hard, gutsed it out. It didn’t win him many plaudits. The truth is that Australian fans want players who dominate, who not only show no fear but perform beyond all reasonable expectations.
Their kind of debut is the dazzling Clarke hundred at Bangalore, not the solid 30 of a new kid. They will laud the Ashton Agars of this world, but the first hint of blood and the sharks’ eyes roll back.
These kind of fans don’t like weakness. They don’t like failure. One close-up of Khawaja’s trepidation, one shot of Watson looking nervous, and a hatred courses through the veins, a hatred that those players could even show weakness.
We hate it because we’ve decided that they represent us, and for all the gaping flaws that have made us learn to loathe ourselves from childhood, we want them to be flawless in compensation.
Only by them can we imagine ourselves redeemed. If they fail, if our shortcomings go unaddressed, the anointed must be greeted with derision, as perpetrators dragged down and torn to pieces in the dark pits of hate.
Shane Watson is an emotional cricketer. He worries. He frets. If he had 30 centuries to his credit, no one would care in the slightest. Australians like our cricketers to be ruthless, but they should also be allowed to be human.
One of Shane Warne’s freakish strengths, beyond the fizzing rotations he put on the ball, was his ability to put aside any turmoil and bring his bravado face to the game.
Attacking a player for not being able to do that makes as much sense as attacking them for not being able to land a perfect leg-break 80 times in a row.
If you want to criticise Shane Watson’s cricket, it’s right there to examine. If you want to crack a joke or two, there’s scope for banter. But if you want to say, with genuine feeling in your heart, that you hate Shane Watson?
You don’t. You hate yourself. And chances are he’s better at his job than you are at yours.