Shane Watson is one of 4 Australian players who were withdrawn from consideration for the Australian Test XI for the third Test against India. As he was vice-captain of the side, this is a serious business. Whats more, James Pattinson, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson, the three other players who were suspended alongside Watson, were likely to feature in the XI for the Mohali Test on cricketing merit given the expected pitch conditions in Mohali and Philip Hughes's poor form.
Both during the Tests and during this episode, one common refrain has been about how good Watson is as a cricketer. This puzzles me, since this is Australia we are talking about, not Bangladesh or Zimbabwe. It also marks, at least from my point of view, a subtle shift in what makes a "top" cricketer these days.
Here is Shane Watson's record from his Cricinfo profile page. 2 centuries and 21 scores of 50 or more in 73 Test innings, an average of 36. As a bowler, Watson has an impressive average, but what stands out is how little he bowls - 11 overs per innings - barely two full spells.
Watson's averages are deceptive with both and ball. Given how little he has bowled (especially), this is bound to be the case. 11 of his 62 wickets have come in 2 spells. The first, was a spell of 5/17 in that freakish Cape Town Test in November 2011, when Michael Clarke made 151 out of Australia's 1st innings 284, South Africa were bowled out for 96 and the Australia were bowled out for 47. A second spell, 6/33 came against Pakistan at Leeds, against in a low scoring Test which Australia lost. With the bat, Watson has had a problem of converting starts into big scores which better batting sides than Australia's could ill afford. On 19 occasions he has passed 50 in a Test only to be dismissed soon after.
Watson is a good all round cricketer at Test level. But is he really one of the top players in the world at the moment as his captain has claimed? Is he really in the same class as Amla, Clarke, Hussey, Tendulkar, KP, Kallis, de Villiers, Cook, Anderson, Steyn and co.?
Yet, Watson has been consistently talked up as one of Australia's best batsmen over the past few years. His runs have dropped significantly since Michael Clarke took over the captaincy from Ricky Ponting. In 14 Tests under Clarke he averages 26 and has reached a half century only 4 times in 26 innings. Under Ponting, Watson reached fifty 17 times in 47 innings.
Watson's record in the ODI and T20 forms is much stronger. Unlike in Test Cricket where he has run out of steam repeatedly after reaching 50, in ODI cricket he has reached a century 7 times. In T20 cricket he averages nearly 5 boundaries per dismissal (the best T20 players, like Brad Hodge and Chris Gayle, average between 6 and 7 boundaries per dismissal). But even in ODI cricket, averaging 38 against non-minnow opposition at the top of the batting order, while unquestionably the mark of a successful player, is hardly the mark of one of the world's best (see Amla, Kohli, de Villiers, Clarke etc. for this. See Tendulkar, Kallis as well for longer term consistency). In ODI cricket Watson bowls on average 7 overs per innings.
There is, in Watson's record the mark of a luxury. He's the reserve resource for Australia's captains, not to be used unless absolutely necessary, especially with the ball. Unlike most genuine all-rounders, who make it to the squad either as pure batsmen or as pure bowlers, and are central to their team's success, Watson is the luxury wrapped in cotton wool, only taken out for special occasions.
When he is bowling, the handling of Shane Watson reminds one of the way an express pace bowler (like Shoaib Akhtar for example) would be handled - in short, vicious bursts, before going away to rest up for the next vicious burst.
The choice of using Watson as Australia's number 4 batsman is surprising, given his success as an opener, and his inability to bat for long periods of time. The latter, as Cheteshwar Pujara, Michael Clarke, Hashim Amla and others have shown, is absolutely essential to establishing one's team's position in a game.
That Watson is able to consider his future in Test Cricket because he's been suspended on disciplinary grounds, is indicative of where Australian cricket is. It is one thing for a player of Kevin Pietersen's gifts and accomplishments to do that. It is quite another for someone like Watson to be able to do that. Watson's Test place has been under pressure. He's not good enough to be a Test batsman for an unconventional reason - while he has shown he can bat he has also shown that he can't last.
In over a decade of international cricket, the figures suggests that due to reasons of health (injury), temperament and skill, Watson has decidedly been a journeyman, especially in Australia's Test team. He would be the fast bowling version Shakib Al Hasan, without the responsibilities that the Bangladeshi all rounder has borne.
It is a measure of the prominence of the shorter forms of the game that Watson (1) is considered one of the world's top cricketers, and (2) is able to examine his future as a Test player. While most players still consider Test cricket to be the ultimate best cricket, quality wise, T20 franchises and ODI cricket (to a lesser extent) have given players a way out. They are changing what it means to be a top quality cricketer.
As far as Australia is concerned, they will probably be far more worried that Shane Watson is currently one of their best batsmen (after captain Clarke), than they are about the fact that some players in their touring squad in India don't seem to take the coach's instructions seriously.