Monday, 26 September 2011

Should Shane Watson still be opening for Australia: a nation wonders

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.

7 comments:

David Barry said...

Watson as an opener is still averaging over 45 - he's had one bad series. Insofar as the opener's job is to get the shine off the new ball, an average of 45 with few hundreds is probably better than an average of 45 with more hundreds, since in the latter case the opener is exposing the number 3 to the new ball more often.

Hughes' average has been "climbing" for all of one innings.

Anonymous said...

David Barry, is that all the opener's job is? To take the shine off the ball? If that's the case, why not open with a fairly competent tail-ender?

An opener should not only be able to take the shine off the ball but once in, take toll of the bowlers. How little Watson does that is obvious. If Marsh proves to be competent at 3 - no sure thing, I realise that - Watson's inability to go on with it is going to be shown up more and more.

David Barry said...

If that's the case, why not open with a fairly competent tail-ender?
To answer this literally, a "fairly competent tail-ender" would get out early much more often than a regular opener. Furthermore, you don't want one of your proper batsmen coming in as low as number 8 or 9, since they'd be more likely to be stranded not out instead of completing their innings.

Of course you want openers to score runs as well as take the shine off the new ball. Watson is doing that with an average of 45. I don't believe that 0 and 90 is a better output from an opener than 45 and 45. Fans might find consistency frustrating. But if you end up with the same amount of runs, and your number 3 is facing the new ball less often, then that is a good thing.

Now, maybe Watson's been lucky in the last couple of years, and his true talent is an average of only 35. That is a reasonable position to hold, though I disagree with it. It is basically saying, "I think he won't score that many runs as an opener in the future." Saying instead, "He scores a good number of runs, but he's too consistent" makes no sense to me.

diogenes said...

David Barry -

You are making some good points, however another function of an opener is to take the game away from the opposition by making a huge score and holding the innings together - as demonstrated by Cook many times this calendar year, and by folks such as Amiss, Gooch, Haynes, Greenidge, Fredericks, Hayden, Langer...The fact that Watson gets to 50 and then gets out places a strain on the other batters. When ponting was at his best, this was not so important becauswe he would pullout a big score. the question that Australia have to answer is who compiles the game-changing score now. Even if the whole top order cpould be relied upon to get to 50, there is still a gap between that and a game-changing innings.

chrisps said...

My dislike of Watson is emotional. He's not a real opener, not earned his stripes. He reminds me of the sporty lads at school and college who tried their hand at cricket and bashed some boundaries, while the committed cricketers slowly accumulated, if they (I) was lucky.

Personal insecurities aside, it is a really weak Test team that has its followers longing for Simon Katich.

chrisps said...

My dislike of Watson is emotional. He's not a real opener, not earned his stripes. He reminds me of the sporty lads at school and college who tried their hand at cricket and bashed some boundaries, while the committed cricketers slowly accumulated, if they (I) was lucky.

Personal insecurities aside, it is a really weak Test team that has its followers longing for Simon Katich.

Pay per head said...

well I have to be honest, I was one of those who wondered if Shane Watson should still be opening for Australia, and I got to the conclusion that why not!