Shane Watson came back to form in Ashes 2013-14 © Getty Images
By R Vishal
After Mitchell Johnson’s blitz blew South Africa away in the first Test in Centurion, the hosts bounced back in a manner that very few teams can, and that too against a team which had cruised to six consecutive Test wins.
The chinks in the Australian batting line-up which was apparent during the Ashes 2013-14, were exposed professionally by South Africa. In the Ashes 2013-14, England fell away like a pack of cards and the brilliant Brad Haddin bailed them out time and again. It resulted in the batting flaws not being exposed, and the bowling line-up did an incandescent job to help Australia win the series. With the marauding Johnson sending batsmen packing in droves, everything looked rosy for the makeshift batting line-up that had punched above its weight admirably, months after they were written off as soft and vulnerable.
However, at the end of the second Test in Port Elizabeth, Dale Steyn and company have opened a can of worms; the middle-order collapse that was such a common feature when Australia lost seven of their nine Tests in the summer of 2013 had resurfaced, and the experience of Shane Watson was sorely missed. In the end, old warhorse Chris Rogers ended up fighting a lone battle, almost carrying his bat all the way.
With Watson’s fitness improving by the day, it could well be toss-up between the all-rounder and the enigmatic Shaun Marsh for the third Test in Cape Town.
There has been no dearth of opportunities for Marsh ever since he broke into the Australian team in 2011. He continues to be on the fringes of the line-up despite his obvious stroke-making ability that was on full display in Centurion. However, as witnessed so far in his nine-match Test career, the southpaw flatters to deceive, and six ducks in 15 Tests with a pair to boot in Port Elizabeth stands testimony to that.
Watson on the other hand, is seen more as a fifth bowling option by skipper Michael Clarke than a player who can bolster the top order when on song. Alex Doolan has shown promise despite being thrown in the deep end in the first series of his career and deserves an extended run with the team.
So, it all comes down to between Watson and Marsh. Though both parties have often denied an apparent frosty relationship in the dressing room, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that the Australian skipper fully trusts the big-hitting all-rounder.
A year ago, Australia went through one of their most turbulent periods in the history of Australian cricket — A 4-0 whitewash in India, before being routed during the away leg tour of the Ashes. It also coincided with a poisonous chalice of a dressing room with Mickey Arthur at the helm and Watson fighting question marks over his professionalism, and a wretched batting patch. England were all over him like a rash by trapping him dead in front all the time.
However, during the unprecedented 5-0 Ashes whitewash in the Australian summer, Watson played a key role — his bowling was tidy, if not threatening and his batting woes were a thing of the past.
Watson’s revival deserves persistence. As mentioned earlier, the purple patch of their bowlers masked the weaknesses of their batting line-up.
Coach Darren Lehmann, since taking over from Arthur has shown a penchant for stability and team spirit over his captain’s constant tinkering ways, and half-baked out of the box field placements.
If there was one lesson to be learnt from the Port Elizabeth defeat, it is the fact that an ever reliable Haddin counter-puncher cannot be called to pull off a rescue act all the time, and they need to look at going back to the winning formula that helped them to wrest back the Ashes from England. Shane Watson definitely forms a vital cog in that winning formula.
(R Vishal is a journalist and an alumni of the Asian College of Journalism. He can be followed on Twitter @vishhell)