Thursday, December 27, 2012

Melbourne 2012: Day Two. The Watto Conundrum.

The difficulties that arise from the early to bed early to rise bit kicked in as I scrolled down the Twitter feed around four this morning to find a couple of comments on Shane Watson's fitness and future. That's an issue that had been given a fair pummelling on the radio commentary yesterday, and the first reaction was an ah, yes, more of the same.

Scroll down a bit further, though, and there's the report of the latest injury. That calf muscle is playing up again, and it raises questions on around four fronts.

So, with The Reader's indulgence, I'd like to explore them.

The first relates to potential, how we try to spot it at a young age and what happens when we think we've succeeded. Then there are the separate issues related to Watto's batting and bowling and, finally, there's the question of the vice-captaincy.

I'd need to get out the Bowen Schoolboys' scorebooks to check on it definitively, but I suspect my awareness of a Shane Watson may date back as far as 1991, when I took a busload of kids on a loop through south-east Queensland. This was something that had its origins four years earlier when two rather influential figures associated with Queensland Primary School Cricket approached me with a question about this idea they'd be kicking around.

One of them was the President of the State body, the other the State Coach (later the key powerbroker on the selection panel). Both came from the Ipswich Schoolboys coaching setup, which is, or was, from what I've seen a unique non-club-affiliated setup that offers Saturday morning coaching to primary school kids from Year One upwards. That bit is, I think, significant, because it means they've got the ability to look at kids from before they hit the Under-Eight group, which is where Junior Cricket tends to kick in.

It was also, and I think this also has some bearing on the way things turned out, a time when there was a genuine border war between the school cricket set-up and the state-wide Junior associations, and the war concerned priorities in the Under-Thirteen age group.

For years, the Juniors had selected representative sides in the Twelves, Fourteens and Sixteens, which left the schools free to do their thing in the Thirteens and Fifteens at a time when state carnivals run by the two separate bodies clashed, so kids had to go one way or the other.

There's also, in the south-east of the state, a couple of Sunday fifty over competitions, the Treloar (formerly Shell) Shield for the Year Sevens and McCasker Trophy for Year Sixes. The teams that play for these are one step below the regional sides that head off to the State Carnival, and the existence of the two competitions was, to put it rather bluntly, a pain in the neck when you weren't from the southeast corner and were looking to push kids towards State selection.

It was difficult to avoid the suspicion that the selection panel had already drawn up a list of players of interest (that was invariably denied, usually with some vehemence) and the NQ position tended to be that if we wanted to get our kids looked at properly we needed to get someone onto the selection panel, though there's more than one way to skin a cat.

Which is why, when Granty and Les cornered me and asked whether I reckoned they'd be able to get a game in Bowen if they put their Shell and McCasker sides on a bus and headed north, my response was an immediate and definite yes.

That first trip came in a marathon exercise in 1988, and involved games in Rockhampton, Bowen, Burdekin, Townsville, Pioneer Valley and Gladstone over the two week September vacation. They weren't going to repeat the exercise every year, which explains why, having hosted them in '88 and gone along for the ride while they headed to Townsville, I organised a bus trip for Whitsunday kids in 1989.

They repeated their exercise in '90 and that explains why I was back down there in '91, when there may well have been a Year Five kid with the surname Watson playing for their McCasker side against my bus trip kids.

There was definitely a Watson on the bus when they headed north on '92, because he belted my collection of local kids all around the park, scoring a substantial ton while I set about trying to get a wicketkeeper from Proserpine noticed in the other game, where an assortment of last year's Bowen kids, a couple of ring ins and a smattering of this year's side were taking on the Ipswich Shell side.

Watson was there in the West Moreton side when we went down to the State Carnival in Toowoomba later that year, and may have been the bowler Josh Movigliatti slapped for six off the last ball of the fiftieth over, securing the margin that eventually won us the game and put us on the road to winning the State Final.

He was there again when we went to Bundaberg next year, and went on to make that year's State side (which was obviously what he was being set for) and subsequently picked up a scholarship to Ipswich Grammar school, providing an education one suspects his parents may not have been able to afford to pay for. I'd organised something similar for a Bowen kid some five years earlier.

Watson subsequently made his way through the ranks, up to the point where he headed off to the Australian Cricket Academy and was subsequently lured for a spell in Tasmania before he headed back to the Sunshine State and subsequently relocated to Sydney.

Now, that's a rather longwinded ay of getting to the point, but the point here is that we're talking someone who has obviously been identified as something special from a very young age and been carefully nurtured to bring him along.

You probably guessed that already, but the long windedness is my way of pointing out that I saw some of the early part, and I'm not Kerry O'Keeffe saying He went to Ipswich Grammar, didn't he? I know he did, and I know the boarding master who would have largely set those arrangements in place. He was driving the Ipswich Schoolboys' bus in '88, '90 and '92.

Significantly, by the time he hit secondary school Watson had succumbed to the first round of stress fractures in a lengthy list of injury problems.

This word of mouth thing is something that will seem very clannish to an outsider, but it was obvious Shane was being set for stardom, and it was obvious from the time he was twelve. In Bundaberg, if I recall correctly, he hadn't had a great Carnival, and I saw him being spoken to quite seriously as he waited to bat in the Final. Spoken to, in fact, by the most influential member of the selection panel and the State President, both of whom, of course, had known him since he was knee high to a grasshopper.

Now, anyone who has done any coaching at all has probably dreamed of finding a kid who's good enough to play for Australia, and there aren't too many who actually have, but you don't get into contention for an Australian side without picking up significant word of mouth along the way and that word of mouth can often influence people to persist with players in situations where someone else might get dropped.

I'm not suggesting Shane needed to make runs in that State Final to make the State side, but the game was delicately poised, and I think that if West Moreton or Metropolitan West were going to win that game they needed runs from their star batting all-rounder.

I don't think you can look at Watson's current situation without being aware of those factors running through his background. He was set for stardom a long time ago, and he's been thought of in that Botham, Kallis, Flintoff role since he was in short pants.

So, where are we going with this one? What about the batting, the bowling and the vice-captaincy?

Let's turn the attention to the batting, because that was what he was doing yesterday when the failure to turn fifties into hundreds was put under the microscope.

Since age eleven he's been rated good enough to play for Australia, and along the way he's picked up influential supporters on the basis that he's good enough to bat in the top six, and will be a very useful third or fourth seamer. It's that combination that counts here.

If he's just being looked at as a bat, the failure to convert is, indeed, a strong argument for someone else. On current form you may well be inclined to look elsewhere if you're just looking at the batting.

And if you're just looking at the batting then, yes, he might be better suited to opening. Fine. But if you head down that direction it seems you're putting a line through the bowling side of things. Maybe not ruling it out completely, but definitely limiting that fourth seamer's role.

For mine, he bats somewhere between Three and Seven if he's going to bowl, and if he isn't he can open, but the same form factors that apply to every other specialist bat apply.

But there's the bowling to consider as well, and in the current situation where injury problems are being associated with sending down more than fifty overs in a Test, Watto's overs are a very important consideration. Take them out of the equation and go into a Test with three specialist seamers and a spinner and you're back in the situation where Siddle and Hilfenhaus were ruled out of Perth after Pattinson broke down in Adelaide.

In the current situation there's definitely a place for a third or fourth seamer who can bat in the first seven. In fact, if you're going to play a spinner (and that's another kettle of fish) that's where he has to bat because his fast bowling confreres and the spinner will be Eight, Nine, Ten and Jack.

There's a further significant consideration. When you're talking Watto and adding fourth seamer to the equation you're not just getting a common or garden fourth seamer. When he's fit and firing he's bordering on the genuinely quick side of things with the genuinely quick temperament to match.

We might be looking for someone in the Kallis mould, and he might not be quite there, but throw in that temperament and you've arguably got someone in, say, the same class as Botham with a significantly lower crap ball quotient.

Or a Flintoff who bats a bit better...

Which, I guess, underlines the Bowling Watto goes somewhere between Three and Six argument. If he's not going to bowl he may be leaving a vacancy for someone who can bowl and bat Seven with Wade at Six, but that starts to bring in questions about Hussey, doesn't it?

Then there's the Vice-Captaincy which is, from where I'm sitting, a mistake. Assuming the Vice-Captain is the heir apparent to the Captaincy there's no point in giving it to somebody who is, increasingly, looking like a game by game proposition.

If he's forced out through injury the Vice Captaincy should go elsewhere, and it shouldn't be automatically restored when he's back in the fold again.

On the question of his replacement it's obvious Khawaja is the first cab off the rank, which, in turn, opens up other possibilities if and when Watto returns. If Khawaja fires and question marks remain beside the names of Cowan or Hughes, Usman can bat Three and the survivor can open with Warner.

Given the fact that we're heading into the final Test on Wednesday, with the short turnaround there's the possibility of further fractures in the fast bowling ranks, so Khawaja's inclusion may raise the question of who bowls Watto's overs. In that regard, I'd return to my earlier point that anyone with aspirations for a specialist batting spot in the Australian top six would be well advised to work on his bowling.

In any case, since we've got a couple of relatively inconsequential One Day series after this we can bowl Siddle, Johnson and Bird to the point where they'll need to be rested, can't we?

The key questions for today, for Hughesy's money:

Does Johnson get his ton? If he does, might that justify a move up the order to Eight or, dare I say it, Seven? With Wade slotting into Six when Hussey goes and the fourth seamer who can bat a bit (and I'm thinking Henriques, Christian or perhaps Mitchell Marsh here) at Seven or Eight?

Oh, and do Siddle and company get the day off tomorrow?

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