Australia to gamble again on Watson

Shane Watson will be under heavy scrutiny during the Ashes.

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Resource-rich Australia has rarely shied away from a calculated gamble in a promising asset, but the continued investment in the all-round talents of Shane Watson will come under heavy scrutiny in the upcoming Ashes series.

Australia's selectors have forever plunged on the barrel-chested Queenslander, convinced a long-awaited dividend will finally be paid out.

Their loyalty has been largely unrewarded, with Watson's 46 tests producing a paltry yield of three centuries and a litany of team-disrupting injuries.

Yet the enigmatic 32-year-old remains a prized commodity, a handy pace bowler capable of both tying up an end with stingy line and length, and clinching a timely wicket to break up a stubborn partnership.

A fit and firing Watson batting and bowling in the same test match is a comforting sight for Australia's cricket fans.

It has also become an increasingly a rare one.

Problematic calves and hamstrings have sidelined the burly blonde from test matches in Australia's last two home summers and he missed the entire Ashes series in 2006-07.

His physical frailty has overshadowed the team's preparations again in the leadup to the first Ashes test in Brisbane on November 21, after he suffered a hamstring strain in a one-day international in India.

While Watson scrambles to be fit for the Gabba, anxiety over his role in the team, where he should bat, whether he should bowl at all, continues to haunt Australia.

"It is increasingly obvious that Watson can no longer mix bowling and top-order batting," former Australia test batsman Tom Moody wrote in a column last week.

"We have to stop talking about whether Watson is fit and decide what the best fit is for the Australian team."

Watson's ability to gel in the dressing room has also been under scrutiny.

Persistent reports of friction last season with his captain Michael Clarke pre-empted a full-blown crisis on the tour of India this year.

Watson, along with three other players, was sensationally stood down for the third test in India after failing to provide then-coach Mickey Arthur with suggestions on how to improve the team's performance.

The scandal, dubbed 'homework-gate', saw Watson fly home -ostensibly to be with his pregnant wife - and threaten to quit playing for Australia.

Cricket Australia's high performance chief Pat Howard condemned Watson as "sometimes" a team player, but the cricketer was nonetheless hastily reinstated for the fourth and final test after re-committing himself to the team.

Watson was back in the spotlight in the leadup to the Ashes after Arthur's controversial sacking when the disaffected South African sued Cricket Australia for unfair dismissal.

Leaked documents of Arthur's submissions to an employment tribunal alleged Clarke had described Watson as a "cancer" in the team.

Watson's Ashes campaign in England was emblematic of his career, with promising starts at the crease cut short and tinged with controversy over his appalling use of the decision review system.

He struck a glorious century when the series was already done and dusted.

All but lost in the euphoria of his first ton in three years was the fact that it was compiled against a second-string attack in the fifth and final test.

Yet it was enough for wishful Australian pundits to declare the batsman had a "lock" on the team's problematic number three spot in the order.

Selectors will roll the dice again in the coming series.

"For 15 years or so, Watson has been Australian cricket's pet project," cricket journalist Gideon Haigh wrote during the last Ashes tour.

"All the king's horses and all the king's men only tried to put Humpty Dumpty together once; with Watson it has been every other week, in search of the ideal game plan implementing, skill-set executing cyborg."

(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)

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