Shane Watson cools off
© Getty Images

Hate to love

Pretty hate machine

Few players get so much derision thrown their way as Shane Watson. Few respond with such aplomb

Geoff Lemon  |  

"Hey Shane Watson!" I say. "Let's go over the rules of the DRS."

I'm outside the MCC Members' gate at Lord's. Shane Watson isn't. I have a video camera jammed in my face as the crowd streams out after stumps.

"You've got two reviews and 11 batsmen. Mathematically that works out to less than one review per batsman."

It's a lovely golden evening, the last of the sunlight slipping down the street. We've had two days of the second Test. Australia are crashing and burning in the 2013 Ashes.

"You know when's a good time to use DRS? When you get out, but you know that you're not out. You know when's a bad time to use DRS? When you're out but you just kind of wish that you weren't."

I gain momentum as we go, face gradually assuming the red of my shirt. Talking swells to shouting. Conversations trail off as people assess the commotion.

"Stop acting like it's beach cricket, Shane! Stop acting like it's a centre-wicket practice for your benefit! Stop acting like… Shane Watson!"

A small crowd has gathered. Some applaud. London coppers eye us warily. Lord's members, too dignified for the spectacle, turn their snouts toward distant champagne. I am suddenly uncomfortably aware of the attention.

"Great," grins Cam the cameraman. "Let's do it again."

Turns out it wasn't Watson's call. Chris Rogers at the other end told him to review the decision. But people loved a good Watto-bashing. Of all the Ashes videos we shot for The Roar, that improvised two-minute bit was passed around more than any. Australians did most of the sharing, though even the occasional Englishman stopped us throughout the tour to say, "Hey, it's the Shane Watson guy!"

More than any Australian player, Watson is the one who a slice of home fans love to hate. The hate is ostensibly pantomime but still tends to the vitriolic. Passionate Watson-baggers revel in their work. Mad at his selection? We're pigs in a trough.

For a Watson-basher, the idea of him selfishly burning a DRS review hit home with the sweet kiss of endorphins in an opioid receptor

The antipathy is part personal, part professional. Back then, I never questioned the perception that Watson was selfish and soft. On the field he pouted, got petulant, took the game too personally. When he got out he looked like someone had shot his dog. When he couldn't get someone else out he looked betrayed. When a hundred beckoned he looked like he'd seen a ghost. On his first England tour he thought he had. He publicly coveted batting spots that weren't his. He left a tour of India in a huff. For a Watson-basher, the idea of him selfishly burning a DRS review hit home with the sweet kiss of endorphins in an opioid receptor.

Looking at it now, I put part of this perception down to conventional Australian notions of masculinity. You could write a thesis on our cultural construction of the "pretty boy", and Watson's floppy blond hair and He-Man jaw match the concept. Resentful of a certain kind of handsomeness, broader masculine culture finds a way to denigrate it. So good looks become equated with vanity, vapidity and stupidity. They imply preening instead of practice. To this way of thinking, masculinity requires a rugged plainness that should be reflected in appearance as much as in personality. Pretty boys are associated with qualities designated feminine, and femininity is associated with weakness. It's a corrosively powerful mental twitch, so unevolved that it barely crests the subliminal.

But all this would have faded had Watson been a dominant player. Frustration with his game kept the rest simmering. He'd look great for 30 runs, then play a dumb shot. He'd go through phases of replicating a dismissal. His bowling remained a support act. In the view from the couch, Watson was an ongoing investment that never paid off. His best was exceptional but inconsistent, and cricket fans are an impatient lot. We even started resenting his injuries. More rationally, we resented the way he walked back into the team afterwards. That was what really chafed the upper thigh of the Watson anti-fan club: we thought he was anointed by the cricketing establishment, and we thought he felt entitled to it.

Fronting up: Watson keeps turning up to take the punches

Fronting up: Watson keeps turning up to take the punches © Getty Images

During that Ashes things began to change. It was my first tour as a writer, down among the workings of the game rather than trash-talking at a distance. You jump in a lift with a player and suddenly you're faced with the reality that he's a normal person, and you just hope he has never read your articles. You start to get a sense of who these men are, rather than what you've projected.

Like seeing Australia's players board the bus after a tough day at Trent Bridge, while Watson approached the green-and-gold diehards at the exit. "Hey guys," he said. "Just wanted to say thanks for coming all the way to support us. We really appreciate it." He shook the requisite hands, gave the signatures, looked remorseful about the match, then headed back. No one else had offered more than a wave.

Like a reception at the Australian High Commission, when an official told Watson that his young daughter was a fan. While team-mates went for the refreshments, Watson took several minutes to write her a letter on the back of a programme.

Or the clincher, after his 176 in the final Test at The Oval. It was one of the most enjoyable innings I've seen live: clean hitting, fearless tempo, the feel of a man venting all his frustrations when he sensed his moment. He even overturned an lbw on review. His press conference was good-natured, courteous, and all but an apology, less celebrating his innings than lamenting that it had come after the series was lost.

Even in the afterglow of success came a reflex to pre-empt the criticism that he, more than anyone, would attract. Here was an intense desire to do well. Scrutiny can bear down on players, bowing their shoulders and tucking their heads. At that Oval press conference, at the barricades outside Trent Bridge, I've never seen a big man look so small.

Despite the knocks Watson keeps on going out there, considering it an honour to represent a nation that disparages him in return

My assessment of his game was changing too, thanks to Darren Lehmann's straightforward approach. I had been one of a legion obsessed with Watson's batting average, forgetting that these numbers are imprecise markers. Said Lehmann, "He's a pretty good bowler, I would have thought. So as an allrounder I've got no dramas." For the coach, the flexibility of support for his pace attack was worth slightly lower batting returns. Watson was good enough to bat top six, but didn't need to be judged as a pure batsman.

And in fact, Watson has done a solid job. He does get out after making starts: as of December 14 last year, 34% of his dismissals had come between 20 and 49 runs, 8% more than Michael Clarke. But those starts aren't worthless. In the binary view of spectators a half-century is an achievement worth applause but anything less is a failure. There has to be a middle ground. Take Watson's 33 in the 2014 Adelaide Test: he put on 102 with David Warner and batted through two hours to help set India a target. It might not be rated, but that's a valuable contribution.

Watson makes a 50-plus score in about 26% of his innings, close behind Clarke's 30%. It's true that he hasn't turned many into hundreds, but if we redistributed one innings of 30 across his five near-misses, he would have nine centuries with the same average and aggregate. Would it make him a better player? Would it change anyone's opinion?

Come the return Ashes in 2013-14, I found myself in the unfamiliar position of cheering Watson on. I got to enjoy the 51 in Adelaide, stare disbelievingly at the 103 in Perth that ended Graeme Swann's career, and feel quietly satisfied at the 83 not out that sealed a tricky chase in Melbourne. Nor did he have one bad innings with the ball.

Beyond any day's achievement, though, what I have come to admire is that despite the knocks Watson keeps on going out there, considering it an honour to represent a nation that disparages him in return. He could long since have eased back to a T20 career with all of the money and a fraction of the pressure, but fronts up each time for rehab and training to play a game that has rarely been kind. For all the accusations of fragility, there is an incredible resilience to that.

Geoff Lemon is a writer and radio broadcaster on history, sport and politics. He edits the Australian literary publication Going Down Swinging