Shane Watson: A Care Bear in the Body of a Nordic Superhero

Posted on May 24, 2012


By SB Tang

The Old Batsman has written a great piece on Shane Watson. However, being a self-described “entirely unqualified Englishman”, he’s gotten one cultural-historical point wrong.

He seems to be under the misapprehension that Watson’s physique has somehow gained him an advantage at the Australian selection table (emphasis added):

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.

As much as I loved the subtle Fitzgerald allusion in this passage, the reality is that an excess of muscles can, if anything, disadvantage a batsman at the Australian selection table and, for proof, one need look no further than the treatment meted out to Watson’s predecessor as the Australian team’s resident Incredible Hulk — Matthew Hayden. Between 1 November 1991 (the date of Hayden’s first-class debut) and 31 March 2000 (the date of Hayden’s recall to the Test XI under Steve Waugh’s leadership), Hayden played just seven Tests (including a one-off appearance as a last minute injury replacement), despite averaging in excess of 50 in the Sheffield Shield opening the batting for Queensland, a side whose greenish Gabba pitch was one of the most difficult in the country to open the batting on.

John Benaud, brother of Richie, was a member of the Australian selection panel in the 1990s and his book, Matters of Choice: A Test Selector’s Story, published in 1997, when Hayden’s Test career looked finished after he missed out on selection for the 1997 Ashes Tour, reveals why Hayden was consistently overlooked.

A chapter devoted to extolling the virtues of Mark Taylor begins, strangely enough, with a reference to the physique of the man who competed unsuccessfully with him for an opener’s spot throughout the 90s: “It says something about the modern Australian media that a solid citizen like Mark Taylor has never been a pin-up captain. I guess he’s just not a ‘nineties-guy’. No gel in the hair and he’s round, when physically he should be Matthew Hayden-esque.”[1]

As far back as 1992, when an opening vacancy was created by Geoff Marsh’s prolonged form slump, John Benaud’s selection panel opted for the “well organised” 29-year-old “accumulator” Wayne Phillips, rather than the then 20-year-old Hayden whose batting “style” is “almost completely half front-foot”.[2]

Even when John Benaud’s selection panel subsequently picked Hayden for the 1993 Ashes touring party on the basis that he “was scoring runs like bees gather pollen”, Benaud freely admits that “some of us had doubts about his ability to make the extra step up in class.”[3]

John Benaud’s verdict on Hayden’s six-Test run in the Australian side in 1996–7: “out of his depth”.[4]

It is fair to say that Hayden was, for close to a decade, severely disadvantaged by his hulking physique and home-spun batting technique.

Fortunately for Watson, he shares the former but the not the latter trait with Hayden, and thus, he has not been subjected to the same kind of treatment at the selection table.

The Old Batsman presents some salient evidence in his attempt to answer the question which every Australian cricket fan is asking — why can’t Watson convert his many starts into big scores — but I disagree with his tentative answer that Watson is “a momentum player” who “either doesn’t look at where the field is, or … can’t keep hitting the gaps.”

The fault is unlikely to lie with Watson’s technique. As the current Australian batting line-up’s token intellectual and gritty accumulator, Ed Cowan, explained in a July 2010 interview with Jarrod Kimber: “the thing with technique is — that’s what helps you get in so … if you have a solid technique, that’s what gets you to 20 and gets you going”. And Watson’s Test record amply demonstrates that he has no trouble getting in; it’s kicking on which is his problem — he is the exact inverse of Marcus North, the batsman who Cowan and Kimber were discussing.

I’d suggest two reasons for Watson’s inability to convert his plentiful starts into big scores in the Test arena — one psychological, the other relating to modern game-conditioning.

Firstly, it appears that Watson just cares too much, he wants it too badly, and, as a consequence of feeling the crushing burden of responsibility when he’s at the crease and well-set, he ends up doing precisely what he is desperately trying not to do — get out.

This is, after all, a one-time prodigy who, as a teenager, moved over 1700 kilometres from home in order to fast-track his first-class career — it worked; but then, when he seemed on the verge of a long and successful Test career, he endured a recurring injury nightmare which lasted most of the 2000s and threatened to end his career. He has since admitted that when, after suffering yet another hamstring injury, he was informed by Cricket Australia’s finest medical minds in 2007 that “there’s nothing more we can do for you” and he should give up bowling, he “cried quite a bit” and “didn’t go out of [his] apartment for about three weeks”.  As Christian Ryan observed, crying is something Watson is unafraid to do:

Shane cries. When his curtain-rod hamstrings went ping before the 2006–07 Ashes series, Shane’s tears kissed the green grass in fat, dewy drops. When he won the Allan Border Medal last summer he sounded like he might choke on them. AB clapped him three times on the back and yanked the ribbon roughly round his neck, and it took all of Shane’s froggy might to croak out the words “It’s been an amazing ride”.

He is a care bear blessed with the body of a Nordic superhero — a sensitive lad who does not want to waste his immense God-given talent. There’s nothing wrong with that; but it does perhaps go some way to explaining why he doesn’t convert his many starts.

Secondly, I would point the finger at an obvious culprit — too much T20 and one-day international cricket, which has ingrained bad habits into Watson’s batting.

In the early 2000s, as a young batsman batting at 4 for Tasmania in Shield cricket, Watson had an excellent conversion rate — five centuries, 10 half-centuries and an average of 42.90. Contrast this with his current Test conversion rate — two centuries, 18 half-centuries and an average of 37.54. His conversion rate has gotten worse, not better, over time.

What caused this strange decline?

The likely answer is that, from March 2002 to June 2008, Watson was picked in the Australian one-day side primarily as a bowling all-rounder batting at 7, 8 or even 9, with a brief to score quickly at the death. This posed a problem for the young Watson because his heretofore textbook technique meant that he struggled to hit the ball over the top. Indeed, the young Watson was so technically correct that a mate of mine who played for the Victorian second XI in the early to mid 2000s and was in and around the Victorian squad at that time informed me that Watson’s batting technique was used as a model at the Australian Cricket Academy!

Equipped with that technique, in his first 50 one-day internationals, Watson’s batting strike rate was a barely satisfactory 73.90 and his average a mere 29.43. So, like the model professional that he is, Watson developed his game in order to successfully perform the role of lower-order limited-overs hitter that he was being asked to play. The result: in the 100 one-day internationals he has played since his 50th, his strike rate is a world-beating 92.17 and his average is an impressive 45.

Now, he often gets out in Test matches when well-set playing an entirely unnecessary and overly ambitious limited-overs stroke. The example which springs to mind is the booming drive to a ball pitched up outside off which he ends up nicking. A young Watson on 50-odd in a Shield game would probably just have gently pushed the same ball through the off-side for an easy two. Or left it.

Watson has, to his credit, successfully taught himself the science of one-day batting, but this has come at the expense of his previous mastery of the art of first-class batting — a classic case of the cure being far worse than the disease.

[1] John Benaud, Matters of Choice: A Test Selector’s Story (1997) 236 (emphasis added).

[2] Ibid 23.

[3] Ibid 264.

[4] Ibid 242.