Failure can freeze the surest of hearts; it can numb the most confident of minds. Failure can silence the most certain of men, and can plant seeds of doubt in the most assured of souls.
Shane Watson has not been scoring runs in Tests, period. He has been opening the batting this series, and his bat has been nothing more than a very large, extremely silent piece of wood. He batted at one drop in India and made no noteworthy contribution there. He came in after the fall of two wickets at Old Trafford. No luck at that position either – nothing seems to be working for him.
Rewind to four months ago. Back to fonder memories, back to the IPL – the magical time when Shane Watson was actually delivering the goods. The runs were coming thick and fast, and Watson was effortlessly, consistently, and single-handedly winning games for the Rajasthan Royals. He was at his outrageous, unshackled, and intimidating best. He batted like he owned the ground and every single person in it and could not have made his dominance clearer if he had convinced NASA to launch a satellite named after him.
The IPL seems light years away now. We are into a different format, and we have a different version of Shane Watson – a Watson who meekly surrenders to the fast bowlers, and a Watson who allows himself to be easily bamboozled by the spinners. He has scores of 13, 46, 30, 20, 19 and 18 in the three tests this Ashes – a string of extremely disappointing numbers for a batsman possessing such surreal, unquestionable talent.
Yet again, Watson has been doing what he does better than most batsmen in the world – getting decent starts, and then throwing his wicket away. He has averaged above 32 in only one of his last seven series, and his last Test century came over three years ago. His average of 20.41 in 2013 is his worst over the last five years.
Clearly, all those failures have taken a toll. Gone is the confidence with which he used to drive Steyn through the covers, and gone is the arrogance with which he was able to freely dance down the wicket to Ashwin and smash him over his head. The harder he tries not to focus on his failures, the faster his failures come back to haunt him.
Twenty four of his eighty dismissals in Test cricket have been leg-before-wicket – a whopping thirty percent. And now, it is almost inevitable. Somehow, magically, if Watson is not dismissed lbw to one of the pacers in their opening burst, he successfully confuses himself when the spinner comes into the attack. Suddenly, he has nowhere to hide. He has a clear weakness – there are gaping holes in his technique, and every opposition is well aware of it.
If technical inaccuracies are taken into account, there are plenty of things that Watson needs to do. For starters, his front foot has been troubling him – it’s almost like he has no control over it, and his foot has to go and plant itself right in the middle of the pitch, begging to be struck by the ball. A slight change in stance might reduce his compulsive requirement to go right across the stumps – taking guard outside leg stump, shuffling a bit, and opening up his shoulders to a very slight extent may give him a realistic chance of dealing with his lbw problems.
However, none of those solutions can be implemented overnight. It takes a batsman years to mould himself to bat in a particular manner – and when those methods need to be changed, it demands a paradigm shift in mental approach. Slowly and steadily, Watson needs to consciously incorporate those improvements into his style of batting. Meanwhile, he needs to go into every innings being fully aware of his lbw issues, without obsessing over it, or letting it consume him.
After all, Watson isn’t the only batsman in the world plagued by the intricacies of technical problems. More than sorting his technique, Watson needs his confidence back. He needs his arrogance back; he needs his swagger back. A self-assured Shane Watson would be a much more dangerous than a technically correct Shane Watson. After all, those technical issues still existed even in his good old heydays, when runs were flowing off his blade and confidence was oozing out of every pore of his skin.
Sometimes, just one good innings makes a world of difference. Just that one near-perfect knock, where he middles every ball and finds every gap, may transform his currently tragic tale and lift his dramatically dropping stocks. Watson urgently needs to find that one innings where he converts his start into a big score – he has to play that one innings that gives him the feeling that he is making a significant contribution, and isn’t in the team due to the sheer weight of his own reputation.
Though he may not admit it, Watson must be sensing the pressure. While Clarke and Lehmann may insist that his place is not under the scanner, the crux of the matter is that Watson is hanging on by the weakest of threads, and would certainly have not found a place in the Australian line-up in any other era.
Arguably, what is keeping Watson in the team is his bowling – and though there are no jaw-dropping, breath-taking statistics to speak of, he provides Michael Clarke with yet another option. While his strike rate of 66.2 would be classified as strictly modest by even the most lenient of his fans, he does have a good economy rate of 2.80 and is often able to efficiently block one end up, strangle the batsmen for room, and force them into playing rash shots against other bowlers, due to the frustration of not getting any scoring opportunities off him.
However, Shane Watson is in the team as a genuine all-rounder. His achievements with the ball cannot make up for his batting disasters much longer – it is high time his bat does some talking. On his day, Shane Watson can be more destructive than most other batsmen in the world – he can hypnotise the opposition into a state of complete mental disorientation. He needs to discover some source of inspiration – he needs to find some way to convert normal days into his days. It may need tremendous amounts of focus and determination, and might take time – and there lies the problem. Time is running out for Shane Watson.