Rodney Dangerfield was a successful stand-up comic and a regular on the US talk show circuit during the 1960s and 1970s. He also made a memorable appearance essentially playing himself in the 1980 ensemble comedy Caddyshack, which also launched the movie careers of Bill Murray and Chevy Chase. Dangerfield’s comedy was heavily character-based, built around the self-deprecating persona of a loser with the catchphrase ‘I don’t get no respect’.
Shane Watson would have known how Dangerfield felt. He was a cricketer who got no respect from the moment he made his international debut in March 2002, in a limited-overs match against South Africa.
Watson replaced beloved Test captain Steve Waugh, who had been sacked from the one-day side a month earlier.
While the two shared a mono-gram, they could not have been more different in personality. Waugh was ice cool, rock hard and rock-ice cool-hard. He betrayed no emotion, and bent the universe to his will with sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness.
Watson, by contrast, wore his heart on his sleeve, and his sleeve on his monstrous bicep. Every triumph and every failure in his career would be emotionally broadcast in SuperHD for teammates, opponents, and spectators to see.
Waugh had singlehandedly wrested the Sir Frank Worrell Trophy from the mighty West Indians, won two World Cups 12 years apart, and scored a pig-headed Ashes century on one leg seemingly for the sole purpose of making a point about English softness.
Watson had carelessly done none of those things and seemed to be leaning on the excuse that it was because he was only just now making his international cricket debut.
A reasonable excuse, one might agree. But back when Waugh had made his debut for Australia, he’d done so with the special bonus offer of a similarly talented twin1 waiting in the wings.
Indeed, everything about the emergence of Watson would quickly prove to be an unwelcome culture shock to Australian cricket fans. They’d ridden Waugh’s brand of squinty-eyed toughness to the top of the cricketing universe and then cranked up the time machine to set their sights on the great teams in history as well.
Now who in blazes was this musclebound man-child who always seemed on the brink of tears when things went wrong? He seemed to be precisely the kind of person who Waugh himself would have mentally disintegrated with a throwaway barb and/or no hesitation. And he was in the team as Waugh’s replacement?
And, wait a second, why were things going wrong anyway? This was Australian cricket around the turn of the millennium. Things didn’t ‘go wrong’ for them.
Frankly, the whole thing sounded pretty bloody un-Australian. Yet another mark against the new kid, who’d chalked up an awful lot already for somebody playing their first international series.
And yet, slowly but surely, with a stealth that belied his enormous frame, Watson began to build a career deserving of respect. It was a respect that was a long time coming, lagging far behind the actual feats that he accomplished in 14 years of representing Australia.
Watson overcame a broad catalogue of injuries that threatened to derail his career before it even began. Stress fractures in his back cost him a spot in the 2003 World Cup squad – the very squad that had triggered his replacement of Waugh in the first place.
He made his Test debut in January, 2005 against Pakistan, but failed to hold his spot for the 2005 Ashes. The success of Andrew Flintoff in that epic series, however, convinced the selectors that Australia, too, needed an all-rounder in their side. Watson was earmarked for that role. And then almost immediately dislocated his shoulder in the field.
He had a chance to regain his spot for the 2006–07 Ashes, but tore a hamstring just prior to the first Test. Michael Clarke took his spot, and never looked back.
Watson had developed a reputation for being injury-prone2, which wasn’t doing him any favours on the respect front.
When he returned to the Test side in late 2008, he’d mostly put his injury problems behind him. However, a technical flaw in his game meant that he would always be a prime LBW candidate, with a constant struggle to get his enormous3 front pad out of the way of any delivery angled in at the stumps.
Shane Watson’s LBW woes became a running joke, and his ongoing determination to couple that with devil-may-care employment of the new-fangled umpire Decision Review System gave him a fresh hurdle to overcome in the respect stakes.
The LBW-review-decision upheld-routine became such a regular Watson 1-2-3 punch that many Australian fans found it impossible to forgive. To such fans, he would always be a joke figure worthy only of derision4.
And yet… and yet…
Despite the injuries that bedevilled his early career and the ball-attracting pads that constantly sought to undo him for the remainder of it, Watson built an impressive record. While never quite the consistently dominant Test player for which Australia had originally hoped (four Test hundreds, a 35.19 batting average, and 75 wickets from 59 Tests), his record in both 50-over and 20-over cricket more than compensated. Watson’s broad-shouldered power hitting was particularly effective at the top of the order where he was able to hit over the fielding-restricted infielders and regularly find the boundary.
He was an Allan Border Medallist twice, in 2011 and 2012. He was the Australian Test Player of the Year in 2011, the Australian ODI Player of the Year in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and the Australian T20I Player of the Year in 2012, 2013 and 2017. No cricketer has ever won as many Australian Player of the Year awards as Watson.
When Australia won the 2009 Champion’s Trophy, Watson scored a century in both the semi-final and final. He was Player of the Tournament in the 2012 World T20 Championship, winning four consecutive player of the match awards and dominating all the statistical tables in both batting and bowling. Watson became Australia’s 44th Test captain in 20135. He was also the first Australian cricketer to score a century in all three formats: Test, ODI and T20I.
Perhaps it’s possible to maintain a position of disrespect for an international cricketer with a resume full of such remarkable accomplishments. But it would require an exhausting level of stubbornness and irrational grudge-holding.
For everybody else, Watson is a colossus of a cricketer with colossal pads and an equally colossal cricketing record.
Activity corner By changing one letter at a time, and using only common English words, how quickly can you get from Shane Robert Watson’s initials (SRW) to leg before wicket (LBW)? 5 or more moves – passable 4 moves – good 3 moves – excellent 2 moves – review your path
This is an extract from Dan Liebke’s latest book, The 50 Greatest Australian Cricketers, out now in bookstores and online.
1 Watson? Consistently twinless. Back to article. 2 A deserved reputation, to be fair. Back to article. 3 Technically, Watson’s front pad was no larger than other players’, but that’s not the way it seemed. Back to article. 4 Watson’s Test career ended in 2015 at Cardiff. In both innings he was dismissed LBW. In both innings, he reviewed unsuccessfully. Staying on brand right to the very end. Back to article. 5 He famously opened the batting and bowling with Glenn Maxwell in that sole Test as captain, outfunking Michael Clarke’s entire captaincy career in a single stroke. Back to article.