If you are an Australia supporter, there can be few more annoying things than seeing one of the best batsmen in your team getting out in exactly the same manner each time he walks out to bat. As an England supporter, it is initially fun, then funny and finally tragicomic to watch a leading batsman in the opposite team being predictable to the point that the bowler must simply place the ball in the right area to pick up a wicket.
What exactly is wrong with Shane Watson?
There can be no doubting his ability with the bat. In limited-overs cricket, and indeed in brief flashes in Test cricket, Watson is the equal of anyone in the world when he is striking the ball cleanly, bullying bowlers into submission. Certainly, an average of less than 35, with two hundreds, from 43 Tests, is poor returns for a batsman who has every stroke in the book, is comfortable against pace and spin and does not especially favour front or back foot.
As Australia lead into the third Ashes Test, Watson is three for four in the lbw stakes. Steven Finn caught the edge early in Watson's first innings at Trent Bridge, and since Stuart Broad, Tim Bresnan and James Anderson have all been beneficiaries of some front-foot largesse. The bowlers may be different, but the manner of the dismissals has had so much in common that it beggars belief.
More than once, Darren Lehmann, Australia's coach, was asked about the problem, and each time the answer was that Watson and the back-room staff were aware that there was an issue, and were sorting it out. One minor adjustment undertaken in the second Test was for Watson to take guard outside leg stump, but all this did was bring him adjacent to middle stump mid-stride. If anything, it would have made sense for him to move over to an off-stump guard so that his leg would get outside the line of the stumps. But, then again, Watson is a Test player, Australia have some serious know-how in the think tank, and there must have been a reason why this was not feasible for the player in question.
It goes without saying that no international player can be expected to make drastic adjustments to technique in the middle of a season, much less halfway through a series. A classic example of this came when England were in India in 2012, when their spin duo of Graeme Swann and more so Monty Panesar, got far greater rewards from helpful pitches because they were quicker through the air than their India counterparts. As expert commentators pointed this out, with the aid of footage and speedgun measurements, fans began to ask, why can't India's bowlers just push the ball through quicker? The answer, of course, is that while a bowler can deliver the odd quicker delivery, he cannot change a lifetime of muscle memory on a whim, for a particular match, and switch back to his old style the week after. It just doesn't work like that, or every player would be able to do this depending on the conditions.
When a case is extreme, however, as Watson's problem seems to be, it may be worth considering a left-field solution, the kind that is frequently used at lower levels of cricket, but not employed at the highest level. In school cricket in India, for example, this problem of being hit on the front pad would have been sorted out simply enough. Your writer has first-hand experience of a coach sending a batsman into the nets without a front pad, against slow medium bowlers, to set right exactly such a fault. When a right-hand batsman plays in the nets without a front pad, he may get into many uncomfortable positions, but the one thing he won't do is get hit on the front leg.
While it's perhaps a flight of fancy to expect Lehmann to send Watson into a net against Mitchell Starc, Peter Siddle, James Faulkner and Jackson Bird without a pad, even international cricketers have been beneficiaries of such rustic methods. The most famous case was Virender Sehwag, who had a tendency to drag his back foot out of the crease when he leaned forward to play off the front foot. AN Sharma, Sehwag's coach, did the blindingly obvious thing, and tied Sehwag's back leg to a post in the nets with a rope, ensuring that there was no way the foot could go forward. A couple of sessions roped up and Sehwag was cured of his little technical fault.
While the Sharma-Sehwag experience, perhaps, cannot be transplanted to a Lehmann-Watson scenario, there might well be a case to look out of the box for a solution. After all, when the most sophisticated methods, the best technology and cutting-edge thinking fails, what can be lost by going back to the basics?