Shane_Watson
Illustration- Vasim Maner

If we were to look for a microcosm of Shane Watson’s career, one wouldn’t have to look too far beyond the third quarter-final of the 2015 World Cup. Australia were 59 for 3, chasing 214 in a palpable pressure situation. It was not the Watson of his heyday; age and injuries had slowed him down. His mediocre returns in the 2013 Ashes and his massive front-foot stride were the butt of jokes. Yet, here he was with his country relying on his now wavering batting skills. To worsen matters, Wahab Riaz, on the back of his two wickets was breathing fire. By this time in Watson’s career, almost every armchair analyst had an idea of how to get him out. Either by bowling swinging full-pitched deliveries or by testing his reflexes against the short ball. Riaz chose the latter option. In his first 11 balls against him, Watson, amidst great difficulty, managed one run before top-edging a simple catch to Rahat Ali at fine-leg. As luck would have it, Rahat dropped it. Wahab soon ran out of steam and as the other bowlers stepped up, Watson opened up. In Wahab’s last spell, Watson for good measure spanked a six and a four to have the last laugh. He finished with an unbeaten 64 off 66 balls to go with his economical 0 for 17 off 5 overs earlier in the match and played what potentially turned out to be a tournament-defining performance for Australia in the World Cup.

Many a times there is a gap between memory and plain facts and Watson was one such player who tended to be stuck in this abyss, which many all-rounders fall into. It is important to note that an all-rounder may not provide a match-winning performance with the bat and the ball as regularly as a specialist batsman or a bowler but on a combined level, even an average contribution on both the fronts becomes a significant performance in a match.

Most people do remember Wahab’s bouncer barrage and Watson struggling but few remember that when it came to the big picture, it was Watson who landed the KO.

It is not the only instance. Watson has landed many more KOs than he gets credit for, especially in limited-overs cricket. His Test records have been average but when it came to the shorter formats of the game, Watson was no less than a legend and a potent match-winner both with the bat and the ball. It is this match-winning capability in the shorter formats that makes him the fifth-highest impact player in ODI history after Viv Richards, Adam Gilchrist, Imran Khan and Andrew Flintoff (min: 60 ODIs). One is a wicket-keeper batsman, while two are bowling all-rounders. It then transpires that Watson is the second-highest impact batting all-rounder in ODI history only after Viv Richards – not quite something imaginable by most people. What is the reason behind Watson’s high impact?

Vs India, 5th ODI, Hyderabad, 2009: With the series tied at 2-2, Australia rode on Watson & Marsh’s opening partnership of 145 runs in just 25 overs of which Watson scored 93 runs before perishing. The platform though had been set and Australia finished with a mammoth 350 off their 50 overs. It was with the ball though that Watson played an even bigger role as he picked up three wickets of top/middle order batsmen including the ones of Raina and Yuvraj while conceding only 47 runs off his 8.4 overs which was much lower than the match norm. Even though the match is remembered more for Tendulkar’s classic 175, it was Watson who finished as the highest impact player of the match and helped Australia gain a 3-2 lead in the series which they would go on to win 4-2.

SERIAL BIG- MATCH PLAYER

Shane Watson in his 190 ODIs has produced 8 series/ tournament-defining performances (SDs/TDs). In entire ODI history, only 17 players have delivered 8 or more SDs/TDs and amongst all of them only Richards has played fewer ODIs than Watson.

In fact, Watson’s frequency of producing an SD /TD (in completed matches) is actually the sixth-best in ODI history after Quinton de Kock, Glenn Maxwell, Adam Gilchrist, AB de Villiers and Andrew Flintoff. Out of his eight SDs/TDs, two have come in ICC Champions’ Trophy and one in the ICC World Cup. His contribution to Australian cricket is monumental.

Vs England, Semi-final, Centurion, Champions Trophy, 2009: England, after opting to bat first, scored 257 as Watson picked up 2 wickets for 35 runs off his 8.4 overs. His dismissals of Steven Davies and Eoin Morgan came within a space of four balls as England were reduced to 101 for 6. Opening the batting, Watson lost his partner Tim Paine with the score at 6. Under pressure, both Watson and Ponting routed the English bowling as the former finished unbeaten on 136 off 132 balls whereas the latter scored 111 off 115. Australia won the match by 9 wickets and 49 balls to spare. Australia went on to win the tournament after Watson produced another unbeaten century in the final. His performance in the semi-final though remains the highest impact performance of his career against a top Test playing nation.

BEST IN THE WORLD

In the four-year period between his debut and 2006, Watson had been sub-standard. He struggled with several injuries in this phase; some of them even career threatening and didn’t really show signs of potential greatness. One of Australia’s great all-rounders, Alan Davidson, though, noted that Watson had all the attributes and that he needed a little more time. He wasn’t wrong.

Between 2006 and 2012, Watson touched his peak as a player in ODI cricket and played the majority of his ODIs (114 out of 190).

Australia were the reigning world champions in 2006 and they further consolidated their dominance by winning the 2007 World Cup without breaking into a sweat. Even as the Australian team went through a process of rebuilding post the retirements of Adam Gilchrist, Glenn McGrath, Matthew Hayden and Andrew Symonds, it was Shane Watson who played a lead role in Australia dominating world cricket in ODIs.

Although Australia relinquished the World Cup to India in 2011, Australia between 2006 and 2012 had the best win/loss ratio amongst all the teams. Shane Watson during this period was the highest impact player in the world (min: 50 ODIs). 6 of Watson’s 8 SDs/TDs came in this time-period which included two Champions’ Trophy wins and a series win over India in India. A big reason for Watson’s success was his consistency . His failure rate of only 15% was the second-best in the world for any non-wicket-keeper (keepers normally have a very low failure rate as keeping is a specialized job) after Shaun Pollock. This was also the phase in Watson’s career where he excelled, both, as a batsman and as a bowler.

As a batsman, only AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla scored a higher proportion of runs and still maintained a higher Strike Rate Impact than Watson in this period. As a bowler, Watson was neither a serial wicket-taker nor a master restrictor but was extremely consistent.

Vs England, 1st ODI, Melbourne, 2011: Right after an Ashes drubbing at home, Australia were looking to make amends in the ODI series but a buoyant England team riding on Pietersen’s 78 scored 294. Watson failed to pick up a wicket but was economical with his figures of 0 for 44 in 8 overs, given the context of the match. As the chase started, Watson seemed in a different league to the rest of the batsmen. At the fall of the second wicket, with the team score at 213, Watson had scored 133 of the runs. He remained unbeaten on 161 off 150 balls to steer Australia home to a six-wicket victory with five balls to spare. The next highest scorer in the innings was Haddin with 39 runs. It was the highest ever successful run chase in Melbourne in an ODI and all this came in the backdrop of a devastating flood which had ravaged Watson’s hometown of Ipswich. 

LUKEWARM TEST RETURNS

The biggest problem Australian critics have had with Watson is his middling Test record. Although it is true to a certain extent that Watson’s technical deficiencies were found out a lot more in Tests as compared to limited-overs where bowlers couldn’t target him for a sustained period of time, there is something even more revealing.

Shane Watson, as a player, prospered under Ricky Ponting’s captaincy even in Tests. In his first 26 Tests under Ponting, Watson failed in only two matches and since his debut was the second-highest impact player for Australia only after Shane Warne.

The change of captaincy to Michael Clarke though appeared to derail Watson’s Test career. It started off with a bang with an SD performance against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka but as reports of a rift started surfacing amongst the two players, his performances took a hit. While Watson’s Bowling Impact remained the same more-or-less, his Batting Impact dropped by 64% in the 29 Tests under Clarke. Even as a player, his failure rate which was only 7% under Ponting jumped to 28% under Clarke. Hence, despite producing two SDs in 59 Tests, Watson could never do justice to his potential as a Test player seen under Ponting, the reasons for which are perhaps not entirely cricketing.

THE IPL KICKSTART AND T20 EXPLOITS

As was often the case in Shane Watson’s career, his limited-overs prowess bailed him out of tight spots. Watson’s initial career was so injury-prone that he could never make his spot certain in the Australian team. The inaugural IPL season in 2007 though provided him with a chance to show that he was fit and ready to play for Australia. Playing for Rajasthan Royals—a team with hardly any marquee players, Watson produced a tournament-defining performance both with bat and ball—the only player to do that in the IPL history so far.

In fact, in IPL history till date, Shane Watson is the seventh-highest impact batsman after Michael Hussey, David Warner, Suresh Raina, Dwayne Smith, Robin Uthappa and Chris Gayle and no batsman apart from Gayle and AB de Villiers have scored a higher proportion of runs and still maintained a higher Strike Rate Impact than Watson. To top it off, Watson also has the highest Chasing Impact amongst all batsmen in the IPL. Throw his bowling into the mix and Watson becomes the highest impact and the most consistent player (amongst non-wicket-keepers) in IPL history (min: 50 matches).

Due to his international commitments, Watson hardly ever got a chance to play in the BBL but in his first full season as a player for Sydney Thunder, he contributed prominently and his team went on to win the trophy.

Even in T20Is, Shane Watson has been right up there. He is the highest impact Australian player in T20Is. Even on a world scale, Watson is the fifth-highest impact all-rounder after Irfan Pathan, Chris Gayle, Shahid Afridi and Yuvraj Singh. Amongst them Watson is the only one whose team hasn’t won the WT20 and a result he doesn’t have any TD to show for. If we discount the TDs of other players, then Watson actually comes up as the highest impact all-rounder in T20Is as well.

Vs Delhi Daredevils, 1st Semi-final, IPL, Mumbai, 2008: Batting first, Rajasthan Royals were 65 for 2 when Watson walked into bat. Within no time he had bludgeoned a 29-ball 52 as Rajasthan finished with 192 runs off their 20 overs. Delhi, in their reply, were jolted by Watson as he accounted for their top three – Gambhir, Dhawan and Sehwag in the Powerplay overs itself. Watson single-handedly killed off the chase before it even began and finished with 3 for 10 off his 3 overs as Delhi managed only 87 runs. This turned out to be a tournament-defining performance with both the bat and the ball for Watson as Rajasthan went on to lift the IPL title in their next match.

Eventually, Shane Watson doesn’t register as an all-time great of the game with many of the romantics because of his inconsistent showings in the longest format of the game (where he still produced two SDs in 59 Tests, which is very creditable) but his achievements in the shorter formats of the game exude the status of a legend. He was the highest impact active all-rounder in ODI cricket so far. With Watson’s retirement, Shakib Al Hasan takes over that mantle. It won’t be an easy one to keep pace with.

 

 

Soham Sarkhel

NOTE: NOTE: This piece is up-to-date as of August 2016