Shane Watson would not have made a great friend to Sherlock Holmes. Unlike the master-sleuth’s partner in crime, John, Shane comes across as a brash man lacking, inter alia, in discretion – a certain asset in the art of deduction. Yet it is the man’s candour that keeps one from questioning whether, as Watson said about his retirement from Test cricket last week, he has truly given his best to the long form of the game. Watson’s numbers in Tests are there for all to see, and they speak of an underachieving all-rounder, undone often by a fragile body and at times by a clouded mind. In Watson’s case the numbers may even tell the best part of his story, but that part, shorn of emotion, undersells the man significantly; for, Watson, despite what he promised and what he delivered (or did not), was all about emotions – the ones he exuded, and the ones he provoked.
My first memory of Watson is from the curtain-raising edition of the IPL 2008, in which Watson batted and bowled his way into the Australian team, besides playing a significant role in Rajasthan Royals’ – a team of unfancied rookies, though captained by a certain Shane Keith Warne – tile triumph. Since then, I have watched Watson smash attacks to smithereens in the shorter formats, for Australia and for Rajasthan Royals, and have been awestruck, like others, by the power and the straight lines which characterize Watson’s hitting, especially straight down the ground. If only Watson had figured out a way to wed his power with some discretion – that word, again – his would have been a story of ‘what he did not achieve’ rather than ‘what he did.’
Even as it stands, Watson’s story in the game’s most prized format is not to be trifled with. Many a sub-continental country would blindly select an all-rounder who averages 35 with the bat and under 35 with the ball whenever he is fit (and so did Australia). Nor have those averages been accumulated by attritional play, as suggested by his last two Test centuries. Back in 2012, with the urn already in England’s kitty, Watson batted over a day to produce a masterful 176 – his best returns in a Test innings. When England returned to Australia to defend the urn a year later, Watson showed off his repertory of aggressive strokes in the second innings of the third Test at WACA, as he galloped to 103 off 109 deliveries, after Warner’s hundred and a first innings lead of 120 runs had given Australia a decisive advantage. Watson’s 176 may be wished away as a personal average-boosting affair on a traditionally fine batting turf, but his Perth counterattack cannot be as easily discounted. To Watson’s detractors, his London and Perth tons may betray a mind that buckles perform under pressure. That theory is as convenient as it is shallow, though, given Watson’s relative excellence in T20s and ODI cricket for nearly a decade. Alternatively, those two centuries may be taken to showcase a man who performs at his best when there is no time to think.
If Watson underperformed with the bat, he frustrated with the ball. Seventy-five sticks in fifty-nine matches do scant justice to a talent that took 6-33 against South Africa in the blink of an eye. Injuries did play a significant role in restricting Watson’s bowling, but Watson would probably be the first to admit that, like any other all-rounder in the game, he was only half a batsman whenever he did not contribute with the ball (which, unfortunately for him and Australia, was far too many times in the past four summers). Neither injuries nor his temperament, however, came in the way of his being a fine slip fielder: Watson’s 45 catches in 59 Tests may not say much about his catching prowess, but his ‘safe as houses’ seldom shelled a catch.
When they did, that expression was back on Watson’s face – the expression that he wore time after time when DRS indicated that he had been given out correctly after all; the expression that suggested that he was fighting a lone battle against the opposition, the world and, in all likelihood, himself. That expression becomes very relevant in assessing Watson’s career because it spoke of a ‘Watto’ who had tried and failed… AGAIN. It introduced to the crowds, for a few passing moments, a man who had sought (and been denied) personal satisfaction, amid the fickle rumpus of adulation and opprobrium. It framed a gifted athlete with an incorrigible body and a mind that was not swift in telling his hands to play around the front pad in swinging conditions. It spoke of Watson at the close of play – a handsome face wrinkled by the vagaries of a great game.