Captain Clarke will be hard-pressed to find a fifth bowler during the first Test South Africa, starting on Wednesday, with the injured all-rounder having been exemplary in that role during their Ashes win, writes Graham Caygill.
Not all that elementary without Watson
He has proven not exactly prolific with the bat or particularly penetrative with the ball in the past.
Yet Shane Watson’s presence will be missed considerably by Australia when the first Test against South Africa begins on Wednesday in Centurion.
Batting-wise, he continues to be an enigma. He has not scored enough runs to justify being an opener, or No 3, and it was interesting that the speculation ahead of this series, before his calf injury was announced, was that Watson would drop to No 6, inheriting the more natural all-rounder’s position.
It will be more for what he offers with the ball that coach Darren Lehmann and captain Michael Clarke will lament his absence, however.
In the past two Ashes series in England and Australia, Watson bowled a combined total of 133.1 overs in the 10 Tests, conceding 301 runs and taking six wickets.
Not really a wicket-taking threat, as those statistics bear out, but that is not Watson’s main job.
His skill is in the frugality of his deliveries.
Of the overs against England, 55 were maidens, and he had the best economy rate in Australia’s main attack in both series.
There was never any danger of Watson, 32, bowling out England, but what he offered and gave Clarke was control.
He helped keep the England batsmen on a tight leash, helped Clarke and Lehmann plan creative fielding positions, knowing that the scoreboard was unlikely to ever get away from them while Watson was on at the other end, keeping it tight.
In England last summer, that accuracy had little reward, largely because, Ryan Harris apart, too few Australian bowlers were taking wickets, meaning that while the England score ticked along slowly, they were not in danger of losing matches.
But with the rejuvenated Mitchell Johnson terrorising the English batsmen on home turf, Watson and the rest of the attack did not have to worry about bowling sides out.
Watson’s role in the past series was to bowl a few overs, keep it tight, and allow Johnson and Harris to rest up between spells, before they charged back and humiliated England further. It worked, especially with Harris’s injury record, and though he did not take a bundle of wickets, his role was important in helping Australia gain their whitewash victory.
With Shaun Marsh coming into the side in place of Watson for the start of the three-match series, Clarke’s men face the world No 1 Test side with a four-man attack of Johnson, Harris, third-seamer Peter Siddle and the spin of Nathan Lyon.
Clarke may bowl the odd over himself, but given how fragile his back is, that is unlikely, meaning more overs for the main quartet. While South Africa will undeniably be weaker without the now-retired Jacques Kallis, their batting line-up is still considerably stronger than what they faced from England.
It will be a big test for Johnson and Harris. They could bully and intimidate England, but a batting order including Graeme Smith, Hashim Amla and AB de Villiers will offer a much stiffer resistance.
Thrashing England was hugely impressive work by Australia, despite the clear limitations of their opponents.
But beating, or even drawing, in South Africa will surpass that achievement comfortably.
Doing that will mean they have bowled and batted better then they did against England.
Watson may be fit for the second Test in Port Elizabeth, which begins on February 20, but it is clear the main four will have to put in more overs in the meantime.
There were question marks over Australia’s batting, despite the whitewash, as only once during the winter did their fifth wicket go down in the first innings with more than 143 runs on the board.
Australia escaped to competitive totals on every occasion, but they cannot expect to get away with this against South Africa’s proven attack of Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel and Vernon Philander.
Most of Australia’s runs from their top order came in the second innings, when England’s bowlers were tired and demoralised.
In the first innings, the time that sets the agenda for the match, too many batsmen gave away their wickets cheaply, and they were rescued by the heroics of wicketkeeper batsman Brad Haddin and then Johnson and Harris with the ball.
Lehmann, to his credit, was not blind to this, despite the whitewash, hence the decision to dispense with George Bailey, who scored only 183 runs against England, for the South Africa tour.
If this is a new dawn for Australian cricket, then success in South Africa will cement that view.
But they are going to have to do it the hard way, without Watson.