Shane Watson and Cricket’s Centaur

BY JONESY

Jesse Hogan’s piece for Fairfax today, calling for Shane Watson to be moved to six in the batting line-up and competing with Mitch Marsh for all-rounder spot, is an excellent one.

It accurately charts the selection enigma that Shane Watson has become. After making a decent fist of opening for 18 months, Watson had all convinced (selectors and even the Watson sceptics here at the Sportress) that he warranted a spot in side on the basis of his batting output alone.

As this output has waned and he has been shunted around the line-up in an effort to find a more productive spot, any claim that he be shunted altogether (made frequently by the Watson sceptics here at the Sportress) is met with the reminder that despite him making it look like physical and emotional torture, he can bowl.

After being his meal ticket into the side – there was a brief period when Watson was genuinely the fastest bowler in the Australian team whenever Brett Lee was injured or dropped – bowling has been Watson’s get out of jail free card for the best part of two years.

So effective has this card been for Watson that he has managed to compile 3480 runs with a batting average that is worse than all except two of the 28 players who have scored more career runs than him – those two players being Ian Healy and Rod Marsh. At 35.51, Watson’s career average, apart from the two keepers, is accompanied only by Kim Hughes’ 37.41 as the only averages of the list below 40.

Put simply, no one worse than Shane Watson has ever been allowed to score so many runs for Australia.[1]

We here at the Sportress call bullshit.

We here at the Sportress think Watson has played his get out of jail free card one too many times and that it needs to be put squarely at the bottom of the community chest pile (no candy crush here kiddies; we’re straight monopoly baby).

We not only call bullshit on Watson’s frayed at the edges excuse for not getting dropped; we call bullshit on the approach of selectors that has persisted since the 2005 “Flintoff playing out of his skin” Ashes –  to reserve a spot in the team for a guy that isn’t good enough to be there on the basis him supposedly being “all-rounder”.[2]

We call bullshit on this flawed selection policy because we call bullshit on the entire concept of genuine world-class test all-rounders.

And when I say we call bullshit, perhaps I should more accurately say: genuine world-class test all-rounders are so bullshit rare they are Centaurs.

The problem with Centaurs is that they are so rare is pretty hard to be sure you’ve actually seen a half-man half-horse or just a dude standing with a horses arses hanging off him.

Not an actual centaur.

And given none have been seen around Australian cricket since the 1950s (all-rounders, not centaurs), it’s understandable that selectors dropped their standards and instead decided to continuously pick cricketing Craig Wings in our test team. The only problem is cricket isn’t Rugby League. Craig Wing was a good footballer besieged by the rather troublesome problem of not being particularly good at any of the positions on a football field. He was a great number 17 though.[3]

The key difference with cricket though is that there isn’t a bench. Your all-rounder is keeping another player out of the line-up. This is what selectors have been doing when putting Andrew Macdonald and Glenn Maxwell in the starting pack.

The Sportress takes a hardline view. For a player to have claims as being a genuine all rounder they need to have the statistical output that justifies selection one the basis of either batting or bowling, with their second string being almost as strong.

To put some number on this barrier, a genuine world-class all-rounder should average above 40 with the bat and below 30 with the ball. The problem with this definition is that no one fits it. In the history of cricket. At least not anyone who has scored over 1000 runs and taken over 100 wickets.

If we lowered the bar slightly to 35 and 30, you would have a club of two. Khan and Miller, with career averages of 37.69/22.81, and 36.97/22.97 respectively. If moved the bar north for both bat and ball, to plus 50 and sub 35, to weight batting more heavily, you get another exclusive club of two, Sobers and Kallis, who punched out 57.78/34.03, and 55.37/32.65.

Despite failing the original 40/30 test, all four of these career records are scarcely believable.

Honourable mentions should go to Tony Grieg, who comes closest to the 40/30 benchmark with 40.43/32.2 and to Banglideshi Shakib Al Hasan who, without much notice or fanfare (at least here at the Sportress), has gone about compiling career stats of 38.31/31.45 over the last 7 years.

Those players make up the top 6 all-rounders on the list 1000/100 list.

Beyond them there is a glut of all-rounders like Botham (33.54/28.4), Flintoff (31.77/32.78), Cairns (33.53/29.4), Pollock (32.21/23.11) and Kapil Dev (31.05/29.64) that sit around the 30/30 mark – essentially world-class bowlers (spasmodically world-class in Flintoff’s case) who could bat well. The bottom half of the list (59 players have the 1000/100 career double) is dominated by bowlers who just played long enough to score 1000 runs.[4]

Where does Watson sit on this list?

He doesn’t. Watson’s 70 career wickets don’t qualify him for genuine comparisons with cricket’s best all-rounders.

If Watson was to manage to remain in the team in order to take another 30 wickets and maintain his career batting performance,[5] he would sit ninth on the list by batting average 35.51/32.71.

This sounds pretty credible and perhaps makes a mockery of the level of Watson mockery leveled by this site. But let’s remember that this is a list of all-rounders. And Watson is the world’s most reluctant all-rounder.

Watson’s 70 career wickets have come so slowly because he bowls so sparingly – 15.5 over per test. Compare this to Kallis and Flintoff, the two dominant all-rounders of the last two decades, who averaged 20.3 and 31.5. And remember that with Kallis, you had a guy who had also scored you the third most runs in tests; and in Flintoff a guy, who, if the ball had been minty-spitted and shone right, only needed 10 and the innings was done.

For historical comparison, Khan sent down 36.85 per game, Sobers 38.7 and Miller 31.7

So here lies to rub. Watson is not good enough to hold a spot batting alone. He needs to bowl justify his place in the side. He can’t carry a big bowling load because he’ll get injured. This has been the rub for a number of years and the few clear thinkers in Australian cricket, like Michael Clarke, have known it – moving him to number six will finally mean the selectors are admitting it.

[1] To be fair, Waston has the second most number of wickets (70) on the list of Australia’s 29 greatest run scorers. Steve Waugh has the most with 92. Which is fitting because Steve Waugh also led Shane Watson in the fine tradition of players progressing from being the most to the least athletic in the team over the course of their career.

[2] Including the aforementioned golden run of Watson, the Sportress would like to acknowledge that not all-rounders picked since 2005 were without merit. There was a period when Symonds also commended a spot in the team on the basis of his fielding alone…plus a collection of clutch batting displays and career average over 40.

[3] Much like Kurt Gidley circa 2009-1013, Craig Wing in the early 2000s would have been close to being the first man picked in any NSW team…on the bench.

[4] Ambrose and Murali make the list.

[5] This is tough ask right now given Watson takes a shade under 1.3 wickets a test and as Hogan points out, his batting is in a tailspin.

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