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Saturday, September 26, 2020

IPL 2020 and the golden age of Shane Watson

IPL 2020 Short Stories: Older, wiser, and happier, the 39-year-old Shane Watson has rediscovered himself and found fulfillment in T20 cricket

Written by Sandip G | Updated: September 18, 2020 12:03:45 pm
The IPL reignited Shane Watson's career 12 years back (Source: CSK/Twitter)

“At the ripe old age of 39, just two old guys doing what we love”, wrote Shane Watson on Twitter above the footage of him and MS Dhoni locked in a power-hitting bout under inky Emirates skies. Until five years ago, when he was still playing international cricket, it wasn’t love that ruled the Aussie’s heart. Fear at times, disillusionment even, and an emotional state of mind that constantly burnt away his mental energy at the crease.

The most important change he brought about to affect a turnaround was to meet a mental-skills specialist five years ago, around the time of his international retirement, but IPL has also played a significant part. He says he has never felt so “precious” as he had been in his last three years of franchise cricket.

T20 fits Watson like a skin. No one would fault his 40s and 50s. No one would ridicule his diminished pace. They couldn’t have enough of him, on his knee, thumping over midwicket or cover, his Atlas-like shoulders pounding proudly like the levers of a giant machine.

A song plays in Watson’s head these days when he is batting. Literally. And if another thought tries to sneak in, he blocks it out by humming a song. It’s his way to switch off between deliveries and at the end of overs. He found he was burning himself out in the middle, sweating over the wrong stuff.

“I wish I knew why we do things. A deep dive into ‘why do I do that?’” Watson says in his podcast T20stars. Over the years, he had ignored his inner world, fussing too much on the technicalities of his batting. “Was my front shoulder closed? Was the bat face shut? … I never asked myself, where was my mind in the lead-up to the shot? Where was my mind in the lead-up to the game? Was I burning my energy?”

He found a way out around the time the curtain came down on his international career. “It’s in the last four years that I know what mental state I am chasing every single ball. Once I have a deeply defined best version of me, I know what to do … Conserve mental energy. I never asked the right questions to Ricky [Ponting] or Matt Hayden. I just thought you are built a certain way and that’s what you are.” Watson says.

These days he meditates a lot. “Let the thoughts float by like clouds,” he says in a vlog. “You are not grabbing. It’s floating through. Thoughts come in and float out.” Every day, he says, he has at least a 20-minute meditation session.

“Watch your breath. Or watch a flame. Or a mantra.” He intones a deep rumbling ‘Om’ as an explainer.

If IPL gave him love now, it had provided self-belief and reignited his international career 12 years back. By the time he had come to play the first IPL in 2008, he was, in his own words, in the “scrapbook of Australian cricket. I was told by an ‘expert’ that I should give up bowling as my body just couldn’t take being an all-rounder”. Instead, he went all in. Fired by a will to prove people wrong, Watson helped Rajasthan Royals win the tournament and stormed back into international cricket.

In his podcast, he talks about a life-mantra that his mother taught him. “There is always a silver lining. There is a reason why something happens, even if we don’t understand then,” he shares. It would be severely tested in his career. He was selected to play the 2006-07 Ashes series but injuries ruled him out. Others took his place. “I shut myself for a couple of weeks, I was locked in my apartment. I was nowhere … I couldn’t handle it. I played guitar, lots of Blues music. Guitar. Lots of Eric Clapton.” He couldn’t understand the reason before a small voice came through. “There are little things that I needed to work on my batting. Iron out and be better than what I was before the injury.” There would be more such moments where Watson would be really tested but he would tell himself there must be a reason and there will be a silver lining.

He also absorbed life lessons from books; he reads a lot, say his former team-mates like Mike Hussey. Recently, he named a couple of his favourites. Andre Agassi’s autobiography Open and Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. “Fascinating and changes perspective on what makes people successful and why. All those little sliding door things that happen all the while and they become an outlier,” Watson says.

One can understand the fascination. For a long while, he had missed those sliding-door moments until he cleared his head, opened his heart, and rushed in for the ride of his life.

Watson is among the three most influential Australian cricketers to have featured in the IPL, alongside Shane Warne and David Warner. Even in this group, Watson’s trajectory is different. When the IPL was conceived, Warne’s international career was over. When Warner established himself, IPL was fashionable. But Watson’s early IPL days were different. Those were fraught times, and Watson is the bridge between the sceptical past and the bristling present.

His T20 numbers are glittering — 8,522 runs at a strike rate of 138.99, the 10th highest run-getter in the format. The hitting rate is better than that of Brendon McCullum, Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. In the top 10, only Kieron Pollard has more wickets than him, 71 ahead but having played 180 matches more than him.

Watson’s impact in the last couple of years exceeds the numbers. With a little more luck, he would have been Man-of-the Match in back-to-back IPL finals. Watson knocked a futile 80 last year, while the year before, he blew Sunrisers Hyderabad away with an unconquered 117 off 57 balls. Not to forget the wind he was beneath the wings of Rajasthan Royals in the inaugural edition —smacking 472 runs and nabbing 17 wickets.

A decade and more in IPL, it could be said that Watson has discovered in franchise cricket what he didn’t in international cricket. He found love. What Watson could not be to Australia, he could be to Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings. What he could not be to Test cricket, he could be to T20 cricket. A consistent, impactful cricketer as any the IPL has seen. A career fulfilled, with little residual repentance. A superstar in every waking stride.

It’s no longer greed for fatter pay cheques that is leading the drive, but a sense of “enjoyment and empowerment.” “What excites me now is going into a really good team environment. Getting to know people I might only have played against or never met. Some of the younger guys I know with opportunities to go elsewhere were prepared to forgo more money or a higher profile team because they liked what we were doing,” he told The Australian in an interview last year.

Those acquainted with his international career could get the drift, and could relate to the joy he’s experiencing now and the anguish he had endured with the national team in the past, where love was not as forthcoming. Once his early promise began to falter, he was often mocked. The catalogue is long — from the nude calendar gig, the frightened night in Brett Lee’s room after apparently seeing a ghost in Durham (‘Scare Dinkum Aussie’ was an inevitable headline), the heart attack that turned out to be diarrhoea and the multiple injuries he sustained, shaded out only in number by the jokes they spawned. Worse, former coach Mickey Arthur claimed Michael Clarke considered Watson a “cancer on the team”.

He has now found serenity and love in the IPL. From cancer to cynosure, from an underachiever to a pathbreaker, from a scattered sound lost in the clutter to a distinct voice heard and loved, Watson is fulfilling his cricketing destiny.

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