Shane Watson provokes stronger opinions than perhaps any other Australian player.
Recently that’s been in the form of scorn, be it down the pub or in the Twitterverse. It’s evolved into nothing short of a national pastime to lampoon him when dismissed, bordering on nasty.
But public opinion isn’t why he should be left out of the Australian team this Saturday to make way for captain Michael Clarke. It is far more basic than that: his performances no longer command a place in a very competitive best XI.
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As is so often the case with cricketers coming towards the end of the journey, he’s been overtaken.
It’s a mistake that Watson’s place in the batting line-up is secure because of his qualification as an all-rounder. What Watson must be judged against is his performance as the player who comes to crease at the fall of the first wicket. That’s his primary responsibility.
Since returning from the England tour 18 months ago, Watson has played 16 ODI innings, but reached 50 just three times, at an average just shy of 29. More glaringly, in 10 of those innings he’s been out before reaching 20, or 63 per cent of times to the crease.
Reinforcing that his bowling isn’t sufficient compensation for that unflattering run, those 18 months have yielded just five wickets, at an average of an even 100.
The importance of the number three position in limited-overs cricket is self-evident. Going into Wednesday’s fixture, 29,996 runs had been scored at first drop in one-day internationals since the 2011 World Cup final, more than any other spot in the order.
It’s highlighted too by the calibre of the players trusted with the responsibility to bat there from the trio of nations who will be slugging it out with Australia at the pointy end of this competition.
Virat Kohli, at just age 26, is already one of the most prolific ODI cricketers – ever. He’s India’s best player by so far it doesn’t matter, and his innings on Sunday (107), returning to the position after the spell at four, reflects his significance.
If Kohli is the world’s best player, New Zealand’s number three Kane Williamson is in the best nick, quietly going about reaching 50 an astonishing 13 times in his last 20 hits, averaging 67 through this period of rare form.
While South Africa’s incumbent, Faf du Plessis, hasn’t necessarily been at the peak of his powers of late, he has a pair of tons against Australia just seven months ago. There is no doubting his bona fides.
Sadly, Shane Watson no longer plays in the same league. When you look at his career over the longer term, his career takes on a more successful glow. His body of work since 2002 shaping up with the best of them, both with bat and ball.
However, the question for Australian selectors really boils down to how they value Watson’s utility relative to that of vice-captain George Bailey, the other Australian batsmen battling a runs drought.
Despite an important half-century on Saturday, Bailey’s numbers come up identical for innings past 50 and failures below 20 in the 16 innings in the period earlier calculated for Watson.
But Bailey has a point of difference. It can’t be ignored in this evaluation that he has captained Australia more times than he hasn’t. By any measure, he’s more than a stand-in, and in a tournament that demands cool heads, that’s not for nothing.
Who then for number three? Well, how about the guy coming into the side, Clarke? With a settled middle order, why not return the skipper to the top three, where he’s spent a fifth of his ODI career and done perfectly well? It’s worthy of consideration at the least. His recovery shows just how badly he wants to lift this trophy.
The reality is that Watson will fend off Bailey to retain his spot for the Bangladesh fixture. However, with Faulkner in a certain return the week after, he’ll find it harder to keep out Marsh. These aren’t just a pair with potential; they are increasingly integral to Australian prospects.
They’re what Watson was, but probably isn’t anymore: matchwinners.
Adam Collins was a senior adviser to the former federal government, and worked for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games organising committee.