Lawrence Booth: Remodelled Watson now the key man for Australia

Where were you when Shane Watson first became a Test opener? It hardly qualifies as cricket’s JFK question, but it may yet be one to tell the grandchildren. (For what it’s worth, I was in the Edgbaston press box, noting down – like most other guffawing hacks – that Watson had once averaged about 4 during a mercifully brief spell as opener for Queensland.)

While most of us wait in vain for the moment Watson’s stiff-legged, Labrador-keen style is finally exposed for what we’ve always imagined it really is, a dirty secret is emerging in the Australian dressing room. Because without the supposedly makeshift opening pairing of Watson and Simon Katich, you’d currently make England favourites to retain the Ashes. And even with them, it’s beginning to look too close to call.

Among Australian Test opening partnerships to have batted together in at least 20 innings, only Bill Lawry and Bobby Simpson average more per stand (nearly 61) than the 54 typically put on by Watson and Katich. Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, incidentally, averaged just shy of 52. We are in pinch-me territory. And no one is being pinched more often than Watson.

Since replacing Phil Hughes for the third Ashes Test of 2009, Watson has averaged over 50 as an opener (in seven innings at No 6 he has averaged 24; in six innings at No 7, just 14). He may yet go down as Australia’s best right-handed opener since David Boon. But it is his unlikely alliance with Katich – biffer and nurdler, He-Man and man’s man – that is currently papering over Australia’s batting cracks.

Their collapse in the second innings of the Mohali Test was symptomatic: when 87 without loss became 192 all out, a slide that ultimately cost Australia the game, you wondered just how excited Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss might have been getting. In a very un-Australian way, the rest of the batting line-up is in danger of bottoming out ahead of an Ashes series.

Ricky Ponting’s two dismissals (run out and caught on the hook) both hinted at the slowing-down of reactions many have suspected for some time, while Michael Clarke has one half-century in six Test innings. Michael Hussey has two in 11 since he was dropped repeatedly by Kamran Akmal during his unbeaten 134 in Sydney, and the increasingly hopeless Marcus North has not passed 20 in six attempts.

This is not to gloat on behalf of the Poms in advance, for in home conditions against an English seam attack that may yet wilt under the weight of its own workload, Ponting and Co could still score a stack. But we are in strange territory when a manufactured opening batsman is showing the experts the way.

Australia’s selectors may decide fresh blood is needed for Brisbane, regardless of how their batsmen perform in the second Test against India in Bangalore. But they may note one thing: on only eight previous occasions in Test cricket have Australia scored more in the first innings than their 428 in Mohali and lost. The winning habit is hard-earned and easily lost. Time, you suspect, for Watson and Katich to get a helping hand.

Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail and you can sign up here for his weekly newsletter ‘the Top Spin’, which was named Online Column of the Year at the Sports Journalists’ Association awards

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9 Responses to Lawrence Booth: Remodelled Watson now the key man for Australia

  1. Rusty says:

    North’s time is surely up..who’s next to come in?

  2. Valerio says:

    Nice article Lawrence.

    Australia’s Test match batting is at a very interesting stage isn’t it? It will be fascinating to see how it reacts to the pressure of the next Test in India and then the Ashes. The beauty of this scenario is that Australia are taking on two very good teams and will be severely tested, which has not always been the case in recent Test history.

    My big hope for the final Test in India and then the Ashes is that the curators produce good Test match wickets, which for me means plenty of bounce and a bit of movement for the quicks and something for the spinners on about Day 3. This will really sort out the batsman which will be fascinating to watch.

    After having spent years watching the bowlers suffer, I look forward to batsman from all countries taking their over-due turn to feel the heat.

    Back to Australia’s batting, what would each of us do if we could pick the side. I am not sure. North is in a very difficult position, do you persist with him? Hussey seems to be on the wane, but you feel that he has at least earnt a start in the series.

    Fascinating stuff, if Englandcan make a really focussed and fast start in Brisbane, they could blow the Ashes series wide open. I can’t see it being as simple as that though. The 2nd Test in India will give us a pointer to how Australia are going. Hopefully the India’s will produce a proper deck and try and win 2-0. If they go down the path of a flat deck for a draw than they should be heavily criticised.

  3. Sanchez says:

    Let’s be honest here. If not for VVS Laxman, Australia would have won the test. Do England have a VVS Laxman who can win a test for them? You would think Pieterson would fulfill that role, but lately that is looking unlikely. But there are still question marks over the middler order, which frankly have been there for a while. No use pretending this is new.

    I think Hussey is an anomaly. Watson, Ponting, Clarke, even Katich were all introduced earlier in their careers, and suffered at the hands of selectors and came back stronger. It seems strange to say, but if Hussey was younger than he would be dropped. The fact that if he is dropped, his Test career would be just about over means the selectors are reluctant to swing the axe.

    So if they drop Hussey/North, who next? Ferguson you would assume is next in line, but can he perform after so long out of the game? Smith could be a decent replacement for North, but when Warne couldn’t perform against India in India, could he? I wonder if MacDonald could come back in.

  4. Ravikanth says:

    I’m surprised that you’re putting Watson above Michael Slater by calling him to become ‘best australian opener since Boon…”. Surely Watson is a fine talent but probably he’s more like Greg Blewett, who also opened towards the end of his career.

  5. Swami says:

    I am always amused at how everyone attributes negative motives to everything India does. Michael Vaughan was tweeting about how India never learns about preparing wickets after the second day. If scoring runs were so easy, every overseas batsman must be scoring them by the buckets. Yet someone like Ponting barely averages 30 after playing on “flat tracks” for a decade. Wickets in India have always been the same, just that they pose a unique type of challenge. Overseas bowlers never adjust their lines and lengths to Indian conditions and then claim flat tracks when hammered. Hauritz was a classic example .. giving width and being too full and getting punished repeatedly instead of trying to be accurate and letting the pitch do it for him.

  6. Kunal Talgeri says:

    Very nice piece of analysis and clean writing. What I found interesting as an Indian while watching the Mohali Test is that Australia still cobbled together over 400 in the first innings, despite being a vulnerable batting outfit. England must fear that Australian habit. If the top five don’t go click, somebody else does. Post Adam Gilchrist’s retirement, the frequency has come down. But England’d lower order may not match up to the Aussies’. Nice writing!

  7. Will says:

    Is England’s batting lineup much better?

    Collingwood, Cook and Ian Bell have been walking wickets for years.

    Kevin Pietersen hasn’t scored a ton since March 2009.

    Strauss had a horrid time out in Australian in 2006/07.

    England are like a bunch of kids who to to the show and all try and gee each other up before going on the haunted house ride. Pretending there are no ghosts, but deep down, they are crapping themselves.

  8. Nahim says:

    @Swami: You are right about India’s tracks presenting a unique challenge to batsmen, meaning not every batsman can do well in India. That doesn’t dispute the fact that Indian tracks have been quite favorable for bowling in the past and continue to be so.

    I did a quick calculation and it seems in the last 10 years, the average score in matches held in India is 354 whereas the average score in matches overseas in which India is a participant is 336 (not counting clearly incomplete innings such as 19/0 in the 4th innings). That is a fairly significant difference, although I must admit I expected there to be a larger difference.

  9. Nahim says:

    Correction: I meant favorable for batting not bowling!