First-ball duck places Shane Watson in firing line
Canberra, Feb 16 - If Shane Watson's place in Australia's One-Day International (ODI) cricket squad was in jeopardy prior to the team's opening World Cup match on Saturday, a first-ball duck in that match has left the all-rounder open to a fresh wave of criticism.
A mainstay in Australian sides in all formats over the last decade, Watson's recent waning performance with both the bat and the ball has put his place in the team under increasing pressure, reports Xinhua.
The issue surrounding Watson's position is one that has plagued Australian selectors for the best part of 12 months, as the veteran, who will turn 34 later in the year, reaches the twilight of his career.
Across the last year, Watson has scored just 459 runs from 17 ODIs at a modest average of 27.00. But while critics of his position as a No.3 batsman have pointed to his importance as a fifth-string paceman as a means of justifying his place, even his form with the ball is worrying.
Watson hasn't claimed a wicket at ODI level in six matches and has averaged 85.50 runs per wicket with the ball over the last 12 months. The fact he was given just three overs against England on Saturday night suggests a waning belief in Watson's abilities.
In direct contrast, the up-and-coming Mitchell Marsh was upstaging the veteran with both bat and ball. Having earlier helped Australia to a record total of 342 for nine against England in the World Cup opener at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Marsh took career-best figures of 5/33 to leave England reeling.
Prior to Marsh's haul, there had been doubts over his ability to fill Watson's void as Australia's fifth bowler. With those reservations now subsiding in the wake of his performance in Australia's opening World Cup clash, Watson's chances of retaining his place will take another blow.
Australian captain Clarke is also likely to return from a hamstring problem for the team's second match against Bangladesh in Brisbane next Saturday. That will put further pressure on Watson.
While it had been expected that vice-captain George Bailey would stand aside for Clarke on Saturday, his fighting knock of 55 from 69 deliveries against England came when Australia needed him most, having just lost three wickets for 13 in a mid-innings collapse.
Prior to the match, Bailey had suggested he would "probably" be the man to make way for Clarke. Now, he might have second thoughts.
Indeed, the question of who potentially replaces Watson at No.3 in Australia's batting card is still up for grabs.
If selectors do opt to ditch the 33-year-old, they have the option of bringing in Clarke as a straight swap. The skipper has only played 11 percent of his ODI career batting at first drop. Meanwhile, Bailey has only featured in the position twice across a 54-match international career.
Although Steven Smith has little experience in holding down what is well known as batting's toughest position, he might be the most capable.
Coming off a wonderful summer in which he averaged 128.17 at Test level and 80.00 in ODIs, Smith made an unbeaten century against England in the last match in which he played as a No.3.
The other option is to push Marsh into a position much higher up the order and enable the 23-year-old to settle into Watson's boots, a role he can expect to fill on a longer-term basis.
Marsh hit two half-centuries and averaged 55.50 in the No.3 position during a tri-series against South Africa and Zimbabwe in September last year and the move will enable Australia to select another specialist bowler down the order.
However, speaking to reporters over the weekend, Marsh reiterated that he and the Australian squad still have full confidence in Watson's abilities.
"I think Shane's the premier all-rounder in our team and he's such a vital cog for us going forward in this World Cup," he said.
Watson's personal headaches are only likely to worsen when highly rated all-rounder James Faulkner returns from a side strain later in the tournament.
His only saving grace may be his recent form against Saturday's opponents, Bangladesh, having struck an unbeaten 185 from just 96 balls, in addition to 72 from 40, against them in his last two outings.
His critics will say making runs against the World Cup minnows is not much more difficult than shooting fish in a barrel, though.
So Watson now needs to perform consistently against the better teams - not just the minnows - in order to save his Australian career.