Seriously, how the hell did that happen? In terms of errors of judgement, it ranks up there with Ali Dia playing for Southampton and Hitler deciding to make his mate Hermann Göring commander of the Luftwaffe on the basis he couldn’t mess things up that badly. No matter what happens in this Ashes series now, even if Australia continue to thrash England in every Test to the tune of 400+ runs, nothing should detract from the sheer awfulness of Australia announcing an XI for the first Test that included the name of one Shane Robert Watson.
It’s difficult to even conceive of how such a decision could logically have been reached. After the West Indies series, in which Watson played both Tests, scored 36 runs in two innings and bowled 16 overs for a single wicket, the gloves were off. The ledger was now square between Watson, the incumbent, and the challenger, Mitchell Marsh, with performances in the two tour games preceding the first Test to determine who got the nod. And Marsh absolutely blitzed it, scoring 338 runs across four innings to Watson’s 160, while taking four wickets to Watson’s none. Out of the two contenders for the all-rounders spot there was one outstanding choice who had scored two centuries in four innings, plus a lame duck who couldn’t even bowl in one of the tour games for fear of falling apart. And yet Lehmann still somehow managed to pick the wrong one.
Mitigating this decision, perhaps, was the withdrawal of Ryan Harris, and the belief that Australia needed a fifth choice bowler who could be relied upon to bowl economical line and length. Admittedly, that’s something Watson has done well in the past. But against Watson was the injury concern he carried into the Test which meant his bowling was even more tentative that usual, and he was subsequently carted all over the place, particularly in England’s second innings, to the tune of 4.6 runs an over. Not to mention that front pad of his that’s so large it creates its own gravitational force that pulls cricket balls towards it.
To be honest, it’s hard not to feel a teensy, weensy little bit sorry for Watson. The aeons it takes for him to walk back to his bowling mark between each delivery are not really a reflection of his disgust for being called on to bowl in the first place, but rather reflect how petrified he is of his body letting him down again. Everything Watson does is done in an extremely measured manner so as to ensure that there aren’t any bits of him lying on the ground afterwards. On those very rare occasions when he dives in the field it all seems to happen in slow motion. The whole thing is a fascinating insight into what it might be like if a leper were to play Test cricket.
But that’s really about as far as our pity extends, because if Watson doesn’t trust his body to the extent that he’s not willing to push himself any further, he really should have retired from Test cricket long ago. The 2013/4 Ashes provided the perfect opportunity for him to sign off with a home series win. Given the number of young all-rounders coming through the ranks, and a long after career playing white ball cricket beckoning, it’s hard to understand exactly why Watson bothered trying to play on further.
But the real question is not why Watson is playing Test cricket, but why he was picked, and that all comes back to Darren Lehmann, and there are two halves to the answer of the most ridiculous selection decision in recent Australian history (yes, even moreso that that of Rob Quiney). The first is that Lehmann is absolutely wedded to the idea of an all-rounder at number six, even if there isn’t a particularly appealing candidate for that role available. The second is that whilst on tour, Lehmann calls the shots.
Australia do have a selection panel, of which Lehmann is a member (and Michael Clarke isn’t, which still really, really pisses him off), but you never really hear much about it. Mostly because it doesn’t matter. The other selectors are all back in Australia, and we imagine most selection processes involve Lehmann ringing them up, telling them the team he wants and then they rubber stamp it.
The selection process isn’t supposed to work that way, and it didn’t under Mickey Arthur, but when Lehmann took control all of the old selectors were quietly put aside and new ones installed in their place. It’s not exactly surprising, either, that the new selectors (Rod Marsh and Mark Waugh), are committed adherents to the School of Boof. We imagine there isn’t much in the way of argument going on in those meetings, just a hell of a lot of kowtowing.
None of which is to say it’s a bad arrangement, necessarily, and Australia were able to make the right decisions after the disaster of the first Test, but it’s still one that can sometimes lead to, ah, unfortunate outcomes. Like the continued selection of Shane Watson in the face of all available evidence to the contrary, seemingly on the basis that Darren Lehmann, as opposed to 99.9999% of the rest of the cricketing community, still believed he was up to the job. It will be interesting to see if the arrangement outlasts Lehmann’s tenure, and when the next coach takes control, Cricket Australia tries to prise back a little of its former control over the team, particularly on overseas tours. Even if only to protect its credibility from another Watson incident in the future.