Watson's bowling a big loss
Going without: Shane Watson's contribution with the ball will be missed. Photo: Getty Images
THE only good thing about Shane Watson's unreliable body is that Australia has faced this particular state of emergency before.
And Michael Clarke's team was just fine without its gun all-rounder against India last summer, right?
''For a long time now we've spoken about how you need an all-rounder in your Test team, [but] I think we showed last summer that if our fast bowlers do the job, and our spinners do the job, we've got a couple of part-timers here and there and we can still have success, that's for sure,'' Clarke said on the eve of the season.
No one expected the ageing and divided Indian touring team to fall apart as disastrously as it did, and no one expects this experienced, settled and disciplined South African side, the best Test team in the world, to do the same.
This time, Watson's injury hurts, and not because his runs at No. 3 can't be replaced. Rob Quiney's consistently heavy run-scoring for Victoria over the past two seasons, and his ability to withstand some serious hostility from Dale Steyn for Australia A in recent days, suggest he is more than capable of doing that.
What he can't do - Jacques Kallis is one of very few players in world cricket who can - is bowl 10 or 15 overs an innings and make a couple of important breakthroughs. For that reason, the repercussions of Watson's latest injury have the potential to affect more than half the team.
Most of all, Watson's absence places additional heat on Nathan Lyon. Coach Mickey Arthur said on Monday the off-spinner was almost certain to play at the Gabba ahead of a fourth fast bowler, but Watson's absence leaves him much more exposed to a strong South African batting list that is sure to target him as a way of heaping more pressure on the quicks, and in the hope of wearing them out.
The Australian team hierarchy has placed immense faith in Lyon, but he's had a tough start to the domestic season - his six wickets in four games have come at a cost of 68 runs each - and is coming off a Sheffield Shield game in which he was employed for just four overs because of the seam-friendly conditions in Hobart. If the South Africans get hold of him - and Bryce McGain knows that can be a harrowing experience - much more will be asked of Australia's quicks.
In particular, the workhorses of the attack - Peter Siddle and Ben Hilfenhaus - will have to shoulder a bigger load. Both have strong bodies and big hearts, but Hilfenhaus has little competitive bowling under his belt because of the Champions League.
Hilfenhaus, because of his commitments to Chennai, has had one first-class outing since April, but put some much-needed miles in his legs before the series that will decide the world No. 1 ranking by sending down 39 overs in Tasmania's recent Sheffield Shield game against Tasmania. Mitchell Starc, who would play in a four-man pace attack, is in a similar situation because of a schedule stacked with Twenty20 fixtures.
Clarke can always fall back on Mike Hussey's modest mediums, his own slow left-armers or David Warner's part-time leggies, but none of the three would call himself a meaningful, wicket-taking fifth bowler. Clarke has remarked on Watson's need to replicate his dazzling short-form batting feats in the Test arena, but his bowling could be missed the most.