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The worth of Watson: He's better than you think

Everyone talks about Shane Watson's failure to reach his potential, but was he poorly managed? (AFP PHOTO / IAN KINGTON)
Expert
16th December, 2013
148
2933 Reads

Smash a century off a hundred balls in an Ashes decider, then sit back and cop the criticism. Welcome to the life of Shane Watson.

Watson bulldozed 103 from 107 balls on the fourth morning of the WACA Test, including a targeted demolition of England’s belaboured spinner Graeme Swann.

His effort allowed George Bailey to tick over a 500-run lead, with time to send England back in before lunch and knock over their captain for a golden duck. It was a session of utter mental and physical dominance.

No wonder Australian fans weren’t happy.

It was probably a vocal minority on a day like this. On days when Watson falters the chorus is more densely populated.

Still, rather than enjoying Watson’s performance some chose to complain: that five sixes and eleven fours proved he was a limited-overs batsman; that it was easy coming in so far ahead; that this hadn’t the value of a big hundred with the Ashes on the line.

Others who haven’t scored hundreds with the Ashes on the line include Alistair Cook, Kevin Pietersen, Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, Michael Carberry, even – at least in this series – Ian Bell. In the last series, the list included every Australian bar Michael Clarke. Exactly when does a century count as an achievement?

There is a special level of criticism reserved for Shane Watson in Australia. I’ve written before on its psychology, so I won’t repeat that discussion. What I will say is that in terms of numbers and achievements, the criticsim doesn’t add up.

After Australia’s first innings in Perth, my esteemed colleague Glenn Mitchell wrote an article on The Roar titled ‘As a Test player, Shane Watson is a myth’. It pulled a lot of readers, as Glenn argued that Watson’s 176 at The Oval was a “false dawn”, citing some poor shots this summer.

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Given Glenn enjoys a cricketing argument, he won’t mind me questioning the conclusion. Watson has played two Tests between The Oval and the WACA, and scored a half century in one. It’s an ungenerous sample from which to conclude he’s down on form, confused in his approach, and on his way out of the side. Factor in his second WACA innings and the record says two hundreds and a fifty in four Tests: squint differently and a dire record is red-hot.

It’s not that I don’t understand you, Watson sceptics. For many years I was one of you. More recently though, I’ve started to find faith. Just as with the Australian players, the simple wisdom and terrifying stare of Boof Lehmann have helped clear my mind.

The evidence most often tendered is Watson’s batting average. At a tick under 36, we’re constantly told it’s not good enough for a top six batsman. But Australia’s golden era gave its fans a distorted view, where we came to see 50 as a baseline average. The best modern batsmen do average over 50, but Australians find it difficult to accept that only one of them plays for us.

Of the current Test side, David Warner’s century spree lifted him to 43.2, but he was on 36.8 at the end of the last Ashes. Steve Smith is on 35.2, George Bailey 34, and Chris Rogers 31.88. Of those in recent Tests, Phil Hughes averaged 32.65, Usman Khawaja 25.13, Ed Cowan 31.28, Shaun Marsh 27.36, and Marcus North 35.48. Watson has a better record than all but Warner.

Hell, most batsmen across Australia are struggling to crack 40 in first-class cricket. Plenty have made the Test side regardless, plenty are argued as potential saviours. Alex Doolan: 37.92 in first-class cricket. Jordan Silk: 38.86. Nic Maddinson: oh, there he goes, 40.01, check back in a week. No one in the Sheffield Shield is politely requesting a spot in the Test side, let alone demanding it.

Then there’s the ongoing gripe about Watson not converting fifties into hundreds, with his record of four centuries and 21 halves. Firstly, too many half centuries is a luxurious complaint. But with seven dismissals in the 80s and 90s, Watson’s propensity to score high is pretty good. If you could magically scatter a handful of runs across those innings, making it 11 centuries and 14 halves, the criticism would be gone while the substance of Watson’s contribution remained the same. A few dozen runs is not the difference between a good player and a poor one.

It’s here that Lehmann’s take on Watson should be taken into account. At a press conference during the Ashes in England, Lehmann was presented with the arguments above: that Watson averaged too low and didn’t score enough tons. How could Lehmann justify playing him as a top six batsman?

“Well, he bowls a lot, and he’s a pretty good bowler, I would have thought. So as an all-rounder I’ve got no dramas,” Lehmann said with the kind of smile that suggested the questioner was a bit of a dunce.

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We all know Watson is listed as an all-rounder, but it’s often disregarded. Lehmann went on to explain that he wanted an extra bowling option in the side to help rest for the frontline bowlers and be an option when first plans failed. On balance, trading even five or ten runs of batting average was considered worthwhile for what’s gained with the ball.

Sobers and Kallis aside, the great all-rounders of history were bowlers first. Imran, Botham, Hadlee and Kapil all led attacks, and all at one point held the world record for most Test wickets. Watson bowls half as many overs or less per match than those big names, fewer than Sobers and Kallis, fewer than Keith Miller, Andrew Flintoff, Vinoo Mankad, Lance Klusener. He accordingly averages fewer wickets per match.

But no one is suggesting that Shane Watson is that kind of bowler, nor should he be expected to be. What he is, is reliable and accurate. Across the last eight Ashes Tests he’s bowled 50 maidens. Almost every second over has been scoreless, compared to every fourth or fifth for the frontline bowlers. His economy rate is 2.2, with the odd wicket to add to the mix.

Knowing Australia has a back-up, and that seeing off the key bowlers won’t win them a part-timer, affects the way opponents plan and play. A fifth bowler making this contribution is invaluable, and even the less tangible benefits are no less real.

If we then use the great all-rounders as benchmarks for batting, Watson more than holds his own. Sobers and Kallis are in a different league to everyone in cricketing history. But Watson averages about a run less than Imran and Keith Miller, two more than Botham, five more than Kapil and nine more than Hadlee. His batting and bowling averages are comfortably better than those like Klusener and Mankad, and way ahead of more modest like-for-like players such as Andrew McDonald, Craig White, or Andrew Hall.

Then there’s the really interesting stat: the ratio of scores over 50 per match played. Watson’s is the best of the lot. With 25 such innings from 49 Tests, he currently averages a milestone score better than every second Test. Miller and Botham were closer to every third match, Imran and Kapil closer to one in four, Hadlee more than one in five.

How Watson can best be used in the Test side is another matter, and there exists a great throng of humanity who will not rest easy in their beds until he bats at six. But whatever his role, there are a few things that should be clear.

One, Watson’s WACA century reiterates the danger he poses as a batsman, and the opportunities he can make for his team. Having a player who can ice an innings in such complete fashion is a great boon for a side. Surely there is room to build players around him who will better suit Test batting purists.

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Two, regardless of his style, Watson remains one of the better batsmen in Australia, with no one pushing to take his place. This does speak of a broader ebb in batting stocks, but it’s not this bloke’s fault. Three, Darren Lehmann is right. Judging him only by his batting is telling half the story.

I just realised there’s a fourth. The absurdist comedy of his run out yesterday was classic Watson, but there was one key development. Old Watto would have run himself out three runs before his century.

New Watto did it three runs after. If that doesn’t inspire some faith, you’re a harsher judge than I.

Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster. He joined The Roar as an expert columnist in 2010, writes the satirical blog Heathen Scripture, and tweets from @GeoffLemonSport. This article was first published by Wisden India, in a new-founded Ashes partnership.