Few batsmen fail as rarely as Shane Watson. Unfortunately for him, few batsmen succeed as rarely as Shane Watson, either. Here are his consecutive Test innings from July to December 2009: 62, 53, 51, 34, 40, 0, 96, 48, 89, 30, 93; and from October 2010 to September 2011: 56, 57, 32, 36, 41, 51, 57, 13, 95, 5, 54, 45, 38, 22, 0, 36. They are arbitrarily selected, but they represent nearly half of his career, and reflect his almost morbid consistency.
If you were to imagine average as a horizontal line on a graph with each innings marked as a dot either above or below that line, great players would produce something like the cardiograph you get in soap operas as a lead character lies liminally between life and death, with its peaks and with its valleys. Shane's would look more like the moment that the patient flat-lines and the doctors rush in to close the curtains, usher out the mistress and fire up the defibrillator.
Watson is an Australian straight off the drawing board. He presents such a convincing physical embodiment of their sunny idyll that the selectors seem to be investing in the inevitability of his success. You don't need Moneyball or the Availability Heuristic to think that if Shane Watson looked like Simon Katich, he might not have had the same opportunities. In the great certainty that his batting produces lies the uncertainty
over him and his team.
He opened the
batting in all of the innings listed above, something he has done 45 times out of the 64 occasions he has
gone to the crease for Australia. A further six have come at his new
position at number three, where, along with David Warner and Ed Cowan,
he completes a trio of batsmen far less convincing than the three that
It might not be fair to compare him to Ponting, who he periodically enjoys running out, or Dravid or Lara or Sanga, but it's worth looking at players of the same generation as him who fill that spot. Jonathan Trott has batted 48 times for England, making seven hundreds and nine fifties. Hashim Amla has gone in 103 times for South Africa, and made 14 hundreds and 23 fifties. Multiplied out, Trott is making scores at roughly the same rate and weight as Amla. Watson, who falls between the two in terms of experience, has batted 64 times, making two hundreds and 18 fifties. Trott's centuries include two doubles, a 184 and a 168. Amla has a highest score of 253, and four others above 140. Watto's best is 126. He has one less Test ton than Ravi Bopara.
It's against the nature and the history of batsmanship to be out for a median score as often as Shane is. Ultimately the greatest quality in batting is to be able to stay in, because everything else springs from that. Why can't he do it? Well, that might be asking to know something of his psyche or his soul. From the outside, he seems to be a momentum player, internal rhythms attuned to constant motion, disrupted when the flow is dried by the inevitable raising of defences by the bowling side as the game moves on.
Hashim Amla has made 52 per cent of his Test runs in boundaries and sixes. Jonathan Trott has made 44 per cent of his that way, Alastair Cook 46 per cent, Ricky Ponting 48 per cent, Kevin Pietersen 54 per cent. Watson has a percentage above all of them at 57. Only freaks like Sehwag with 67 per cent and Chris Gayle with 75 per cent go beyond him, and they each have two triple centuries in Test cricket. The stats suggest two things about the way Watson plays: that he needs boundaries to build his score, and that he gets out trying to hit them once the field goes back. Both are symptomatic of a player who either doesn't look at where the field is, or who can't keep hitting the gaps. That's guesswork, though. Perhaps Shane is just a rebours.
NB: Australia's best batting order, as selected by an entirely unqualified Englishman: Warner, Cowan, Hussey, Clarke, Ponting, Watson.