Warning: this is a story about Shane Watson. It’s a positive story.
Something about the criticism of Watson sticks in my craw. The injuries, the reviews, the LBs, the sort of criticism that helped hound Kim Hughes to South Africa.
Even now when I see some 8yo parrot his dad and make the all-knowing obvious retort about a review, I spew.
So, to lay it to rest, I am going to map out the glorious 2 years of SR Watson. Who batted and bowled as well as most before him, having a patch as our best allrounderer probably since Miller. Nowhere as good as Miller, but pretty good nonetheless.
It’s the Richmond 2017 approach. I am sick of hearing what he couldn’t do. Let’s talk about what he could do.
And then I will let it go.
The Watson story begins in the early 2000s when this well-built kid started trying to bowl 145km/h thunderbolts. And bat like Viv Richards. He had potential, so was fast-tracked into the limited overs team There was no spot for him in the Test team, despite a couple of very handy Shield seasons and some big runs in County.
But when we wanted to occasionally pick MacGill as well as Warne, it was thought we needed a Mitch Marsh type to bowl a few overs, take a couple of wickets. To bat 7, with Gilchrist at 6. So Watson got a few tests, in 2004-6. He got a few runs, looked classical, didn’t go on with it. Bowled fast and a got a couple of wickets. And he got a few soft tissue injuries, because he tried too hard and didn’t train as smart as Steve Smith.
They tried Watson and Symonds in that role, Symonds being eventually preferred because he could imitate Funky Miller with some seam and then pseudo-spin. And field the house down.
I didn’t pay much attention to this, we were heading towards serious stuff like buying a house and having our first kid and changing jobs and looking after a sick cat.
Then the 2008 tour to India happened. It was a bit of a watershed. We had churned through MacGill and Hogg, I think Symonds was suspended. So Cam White, who I really rated, and Watson, were picked, and played Richie Benaud era allrounder roles (as in, the teams that had Slasher, Benaud, Johnny Martin and Davo all at the same time.)
It was an interesting series, we lost 2-0 but that flattered India I thought. We made 400+ on a few occasions. Krezja got a bucketful. White got a few good scalps and looked too good for number 8 – which he was. Steve Smith predux!
I saw a fair bit of this series on pay, and it seemed Watson was intent on being like his namesake, Graeme Donald Watson, who was my first hero – and had a penchant for big moments, rather than consistency. He might take no wickets for a couple of games and then get 5-15, or seem out of form with the bat and then clout a rapid 80. Sometimes in the same game.
Watson made 41 in the first test. But his 78 in the second was a gem. He batted for 156 balls, hitting one of the best cover drives I had ever seen. Wow, I thought, he really does have the potential the insiders had been talking about. He got a 36 in a giant total in the 3rd. Failed in the 4th.
With the ball, considering he was the 4th seamer on spin-friendly tracks, he showed some of the wicket-sense that would become a feature later on – he got a 4, a 3 a 2 and a 1.
Averaging 25 with the bat and 32 with the ball, it was good, not great, but showed promise. There were still questions about which discipline was his strongest.
When they got back to Australia, they chucked Symonds in the team, too, and batted him ahead of Watson. Watto flopped, and that made it 5 single digit scores in his last 8 knocks. He got a couple of wickets, but Symonds’ pair of 20s saw him retained, and Watson sent back to the Shield.
It was a transitional summer, Hayden failing to hang on, Symonds got the heave, Ronnie McDonald got the callup for Sydney. Then they picked Phil Hughes and Marcus North. Things looked lost for Watson when Hughes tore the South Africans apart. North batted well and could also bowl. McDonald was a handy squad member. And Mitch Johnson looked a proper allrounder, smashing tons and breaking fingers. Ricky Ponting liked his new team, calling that win in South Africa with a bunch of newcomers one of his favourite series.
Meanwhile, Watson was averaging 52 with the bat and 18 with the ball in a limited Shield campaign. It was enough to get on him on the plane to England.
By then I was a regular on the Tonk on the SMH website suggesting that Watson could open. I had been saying it all summer, since they got back from India. He had a proper technique, but played shots. It got a run in the paper version one day, my obsession with this path. But with Hughes going gangbusters it seemed a cry in the wilderness.
The golden years
I won’t bore you with narrative. Because the numbers really speak for themselves. Before being recalled – as opener, as suggested – at Edgbaston for the can’t lose 3rd test in 2009, he had 1 50 and no 5-fors. Then…
v England (in England)
62 and 53
51 and 34
Averaged 48 opening in England in a losing Ashes
96 and 48
89 and 30
93 and 120*
Averaged 60 for the home summer, opening against Roach, Taylor, Amir, Asif etc
He also took 13 handy wickets in 6 tests i.e. 1 an innings on average.
V NZ (in NZ)
So in that flurry of 11 tests in 8 months after moving to open, he scored 1 ton, 8 50’s and took some wickets.
v Pakistan (in England)
Averaged 10 for the series. (And not much more with the bat.)
V India (In India)
126 and 56
57 and 32
Averaged 68 in a 2-0 loss.
36 and 41*
51 and 57
45 and 38
So scored more than 400 at nearly 50, opening against Anderson and Tremlett and Bresnan, in a humiliation.
This was the end of Watson’s golden run. Clarke replaced Ponting, Katich his partner was gone. After missing a summer with a calf, he bowled less, and Cowan had been bought into open. So Watson had to shuffle down to 3, which didn’t suit him with the pace off the ball and often a slow run rate to contend with (Cowan being Cowan).
Still, it’s worth recapping that glorious run of tests. Averaging 50 at the top of the order against quality quicks, while taking handy wickets including some bags. Fielding well. Starring in the limited overs formats too.
That’s how you win consecutive Allan Border Medals, as the best cricketer in the land.
There were to be many more highlights, but never enough to keep the knockers off his back. Clarke used him as a stock bowler, and he rarely got the chance to open, batting as low as 6, which never suited his aggressive style. And there were more injuries, for instance after Clarke used for him almost 50 over against Sri Lanka in Hobart. The days of “he has to bowl to hold his place”, despite having a batting average well over 40 at that stage.
- The ridiculous 5-17 in Sth Africa, in that bizarre test when we made 47
- The strong finish to the 2013 Ashes – the 68 batting 6 in the 4th test arguably better than the 178 on Day 1 in the 5th. And the solid 2013-14 return, an underrated 50 in Adelaide and then calypso ton in Perth. But the best innings was the 80* in the chase with Rogers at Melbourne, a very mature counter-attacking knock.
- Captaining Australia in India. Not bad after being dropped for eating in class or whatever it was.
- Double cameos in his recall test against Sth Africa, smashing them around to enable the declarations that won us the game with an over to spare. Batting 6,
- Helping Smith with 84 overs in the India series in 2014-15, keeping it tight on the flat decks as Lyon was getting tonked seriously. He bowled almost 30 overs in Sydney, which had to affect his batting, but was still lampooned for getting out for 81.
- Having the good grace to retire after being dropped, and allowing Mitchell Marsh a long run at it. A 20-test run in which he averaged about half with the bat and 10 more with the ball what Watson did in his first 20 tests.
So Watson’s final record is not a true indicator of his worth as a cricketer. He was pivotal in providing a winnable structure as continued to struggle in the period between dominant teams. He put his hand up to open, and smashed it. 35 with the bat and 32 with the ball is better than just about anyone we have had try that role (Symonds got 40 with the bat and 37 with the ball, but not opening). If you control for (a) opening; (b) stop-start through injury; (c) unclear role definition under Clarke (d) the lack of support eg HomeworkGate, he was good enough to average 40 with the bat and 30 with the ball. Imagine if Renshaw or Bancroft – or Burns – or anyone – could manage that!
But in that period from 2009-11 he was even better. He was as good an allrounder type as we have had, since Miller.
Which isn’t saying much – but it’s still worth saying.