Watson steps up quest for hundreds
Merely by being fit for its commencement, Shane Watson has already achieved something this season. Entrenched as Australia's No. 3 Test batsman, he is now intent on going on to compile the sorts of scores that will win matches, instead of racking up the kinds of handy five-day tallies that have characterised his career to this point.
Last summer's injuries and frustrations caused Cricket Australia to concoct the most specialised plan for an Australian cricketer yet devised in order to ensure Watson would be close to the peak of fitness and form for the home Tests. He was rested from an ODI series against Pakistan in the UAE, then ordered home early from the Twenty20 Champions League in South Africa.
These rest periods have allowed Watson time to refresh, but also to re-focus, acknowledging that this summer will be an unfulfilled one unless he can maintain his muscular technique for long enough to peel off a century or three. To date he has only two Test centuries, as against 18 50s, in his 35 Tests.
"That's the thing I've been really looking deep inside myself to be able to find the reasons why I haven't been able to convert those decent days into those really big and good days," Watson said. "And they are the innings that do really influence a game. It's certainly something I'm very conscious of and I'm doing everything I can to hopefully have that breakthrough innings to know how to replicate that.
"I'm very much looking forward to the Test cricket coming up. To miss the summer last year and only play a few Tests in the West Indies, I certainly have the excitement inside me to want to play Test cricket. It's the ultimate challenge for a cricketer. There are a few things I certainly want to improve in my Test cricket especially. This is a good opportunity with the amount of cricket coming up and also the quality of opposition to test out where I'm at."
Watson's fitness is a more complicated matter than whether he is nursing any muscle strains or not. Having played a surfeit of T20 lately, he is in training to regain the kind of stamina and thinking required for Tests, and a looming Sheffield Shield fixture against Queensland at Allan Border Field will be critical to how ready Watson will be for the Gabba match.
"Over the next couple of weeks the conditioning part of things is going to be very important. Unless you're out there playing you can't replicate anything like what it's going to be physically being out there on your feet in a battle for five days," Watson said. "That's certainly going to take a bit of time to get my body adjusted to it.
"Mentally that's one of the reasons why I came home [from CLT20]. To be able to reset my batting especially to get rid of a few of the little things that creep in when you're playing the shorter form of the game."
One of the curious things about Watson's failure to be a consistent century maker in Tests is that it is not as though he has never done it. In the 2010 Mohali Test against India, Watson batted more than six hours to anchor Australia's innings, while in first-class matches his 100s to 50s ratio is far more satisfactory, with 17 centuries and 42 half-centuries. He has a double century to his credit in a Sheffield Shield final also.
"[Mohali] was over six hours, and that's a thing I know in Shield cricket in the times when I've scored those big runs in the level below, it has been when I've batted for really long periods of time," Watson said. "So it's about finding that balance to be able to not have a defensive mindset when you're out there, just thinking about batting time.
"That's the only thing that really you're getting balance between, making sure you're putting the bowlers under pressure the whole time you're out there, that they can't just settle into limiting your scoring, but also do it for really long periods of time. A lot of it comes down to being able to replicate your technique, so its the concentration side of things and making sure technique is as good as it can be as well."
To that end, Watson's shift from opening to No. 3 has helped him by providing a slightly wider window to adjust from the demands of bowling to those of batting at the top of the order. Rather than jogging off at the change of innings only to walk straight back out as an opener, Watson now has time at least for a shower, a pause and reset of his goals, even if the opening stand lasts for only a ball or two. While he did not make a tall score when moving into the position in the West Indies, Watson enjoyed the extra time to change gears.
"It's certainly a big change, and I think in the end from what I found in the West Indies a good change in a way, because it meant it gave me a bit of time to even mentally reset," he said. "If I've had to bowl and I've come off straight away and had to get my pads on and get out to face the first ball, you don't really have a time to reset your mind really.
"That's where in the West Indies I found it a nice time to mentally reset, let alone the physical side of things to recover, even if it is just for one ball or one or two overs. I did enjoy that compared to opening the batting."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here