Katich makes most of second coming
As one Australian opener hobbles, another stands as firmly as his partner used to. A year ago Simon Katich, 33, was unlikely to play another Test, but now he is the present and future of the top of the order. It is an unpredictable rise that is becoming complete.
While Katich was scoring a record 1506 Pura Cup runs last season, Matthew Hayden and Phil Jaques were the opening pillars. Slowly events and form allowed Katich back into the Test set-up he had left in 2005, seemingly forever. Hayden's heel injury created a space during the West Indies tour in May and Katich ended the series with two centuries and a stronger hold than Jaques.
When Hayden returned in India last month it was Katich who was his new partner and as the Australian summer starts it is the New South Wales captain who has the stronger chance to be on his third Ashes tour in 2009. With four centuries in eight Tests since his comeback, Katich owns a stable position in a team with a growing group of wonky ones.
"The West Indies and India I treated as a bonus," Katich said. "I wasn't supposed to play on either of those tours. I've been blessed to play those seven Tests when I was in form which is great, because there's nothing better than being picked after playing well. Being picked back in Australia, it's nice to carry that form on."
Hayden's touch entering his 100th Test is patchy, Brad Haddin's grip becomes looser by the innings and Shane Watson's search for legitimate allrounder status continues, but Katich is steadying the team during the best streak of his international life. His unbeaten 131 in the second innings made him the first Australian since Mark Taylor in 1998 to carry his bat and pushed his run tally for the year to 809, 11 behind Michael Hussey and 62 adrift of Ricky Ponting.
"In the past I've batted down the order in Test cricket, but when this opportunity came I was really comfortable with it," he said. "As I've gotten older, it's better to get out there from the word go than sit around and use up nervous energy. Before I got dropped last time, during the Ashes [in 2005] there were times when you sit around waiting to bat at six and that probably didn't help my cause."
There have been two versions of Katich on display since his re-elevation. The defensive model is capable of absorbing and deflecting for hours before the attacking one emerges in an instant. After finishing the second day on a comfortable and breezy 67, he started cautiously on the third morning until he reached 90.
"The way I batted in Nagpur [he scored 102] and the way I batted last night were the two best times I've hit the ball for Australia," he said. "I felt really good. Today I was a bit scratchy in the first half an hour and it took me a while to get going."
A crisp straight drive off Tim Southee was followed by a fierce hook next ball that also raced to the rope. Seven balls later he tried a similar shot, didn't quite get it, but achieved a similar result. As the ball passed the rope at fine leg he raised his arms for his sixth Test century.
|Hayden's touch entering his 100th Test is patchy, Brad Haddin's grip becomes looser by the innings and Shane Watson's search for legitimate allrounder status continues, but Katich is steadying the team during the best streak of his international life|
The conditions had settled from the first two days but Katich's display was the finest of the match. There were two dropped catches, on 70 and 86, and New Zealand needed to take one of the tough chances to stay in the game. Instead Katich quickly took it further away and when the No. 11 Stuart Clark drove to Daniel Vettori the lead was 326. "I was just happy to get a hundred when we needed it," he said, "and to get a total that was defendable."
Katich was able to make up for the drifting performance of some of his team-mates. Haddin looked comfortable, as he usually does, until making a terminal mistake to Vettori's second delivery of the day. It is always a worry when a wicketkeeper struggles in the early stages of a spinner's spell as they spend their life watching bowler's hands.
Haddin missed an arm ball and was bowled, leaving him under further scrutiny ahead of the second Test in Adelaide from Thursday. Hayden and Haddin will both be involved, but Watson's place is likely to go to Jason Krejza following the selectors' faith in Andrew Symonds for this game, and the need for a spinner. Following Katich's sustained excellence the selection debates can swirl around him rather than centre on him, although he is not sure how long the peace will last.
"That might not take long, if I nick a few," he said. "At the end of the day I'm just making sure I play every Test as if it's my last. I've had that approach since I came back in. That's not in a negative way, I'm just grateful for the opportunity and I'm going to make the most of it."
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo