Post-empire, Australia's self-examination was more lacerating than anything that came from the outside, and now Shane Watson has written an autobiography. It is titled, numbingly, 'Watto'. There's plenty of stuff in it about bowlers who were 'shitting themselves' during the Ashes, but does the book address a more central question: should Shane Watson be opening for Australia?
There is an easy answer for white-ball cricket: he is a man who can induce a queasy kind of awe. But as a Test match batsman, he moved there out of expediency and his decline has been camouflaged by the entropy all around him. Australia's future definition may be hazy at its edges, but focus should sharpen at the top. Shane is just not cutting it.
Watson's batting is a kind of brutalist modernism, as heavy as concrete and about as subtle. In the Summer of 2010, during the warm-ups before an ODI at the Rose Bowl, he came to the boundary edge for some throw-downs, wearing a single pad and a pair of gloves. He began belting the ball back past the coach like the school bully slapping a fat kid's neck. It was impressive, superficially, until Ricky Ponting came over to do the same thing. Ponting didn't strike the ball quite as hard, but he played each shot differently, angling the blade of his bat in such a way that a graph of his shots would have looked like the lines drawn on a protractor. It was the difference between putting a wrecking ball through a wall and undermining its foundations.
Incrementally, Watson's methods have failed him. His Test average is declining and is now below 40. He has made two hundreds in 54 innings. Phil Hughes, his much-maligned partner, averages half a run more - 39.73 to 39.43 - and his average is climbing. He has three centuries from 24 innings.
Those stats are blunt yet revealing, and need digging into. Watson's last Test before he began opening was at Brisbane against New Zealand in November 2008. He went in at number seven behind Hayden, Katich, Ponting, Hussey, Clarke and Symonds. He scored one and five, and his average hit its lowest point, 19.76. He had made one half-century in 13 innings.
He opened for the first time at Edgbaston in the third Ashes Test of 2009. He averaged 48 in that series, with three half-centuries, did even better against West Indies and Pakistan the following Australian summer, averaging 52.60 and 69.20 and making his maiden hundred. He slipped in New Zealand, averaging 38.50 in a single Test, then again against Pakistan in England, averaging 16.00, before playing wonderfully in India, with a second hundred and an average of 67.75 in two Tests. He averaged 48.33 in the Ashes of 2010-11 but with no century, and then made 87 runs at 17.40 in Sri Lanka. His overall average peaked at 42.11 against England in December 2010, and has slipped away since then.
Of his 2040 Test match runs, 1164 have come in boundaries, and he has been dismissed between 50 and a hundred 14 times in 49 innings. These are the stats of a player who has been worked out. When the field is up, he can score in boundaries. Once he is set, and teams are less attacking, he struggles to work the ball around and becomes frustrated.
Australia, with two openers averaging under 40 and with five hundreds between them, compare badly to the sides ranked ahead of them. India have Sehwag - 52.26/22 100s, and Gambhir - 48.34/nine 100s; South Africa have Smith - 49.71/22, albeit paired of late with the mystifying Peterson - 33.64/1; and England have Andrew Strauss - 41.98/19 and Alastair Cook - 49.72/19. And Australia, let's remember, dropped Simon Katich - 45.03/10 and who as an opener alone averaged 50.48 with eight centuries - figures better than Watson and Hughes combined.
Not every great opener qualifies as a great batsman, but every truly great team has had a great opening partnership. Hughes has the capacity to score big hundreds and bats unfathomably; he is an outlier in terms of technique, and there is an X-factor about him. Watson carries none of that, and yet he is a potentially devastating all-rounder if deployed more conventionally.
It may dent his ego to move, as he spends a lot of his time talking about how much he wants to open, but at heart he is a beta-male, deferential, scared of ghosts. Pitched as a Gilchrist figure who bowls instead of keeps wicket, all of that can be dealt with, and as a cricketer he can be fulfilled. At the top of the order, by the highest standards, he is an also-ran.