The rewards of resilience
Shane Watson has spent most of the noughties straining under great expectations and a fragile body that couldn't shoulder the load. On the second-last day of Test cricket in the decade, Watson was finally unburdened and freed himself of all the disappointments and heartache that the past few years have brought him. He can now move on to greater things.
As Watson raised his bat to celebrate his maiden Test century, he looked relieved more than excited. In part that was because he'd just been dropped at point on 99 and scrambled a quick single to reach the milestone, enough to send any batsman's heart racing; but Watson's build-up to this moment spanned eight years, not just a few nervous deliveries.
Ever since he first stepped out for his national team in March 2002, Watson has been tipped as the next big thing and the expectations only grew when Andrew Flintoff's 2005 Ashes showed Australia the value of an allrounder. For most of his career, Watson has looked like an action figurine and been just as inflexible and liable to snap. But now that his body is holding together, the full extent of his talent is on display.
Chris Gayle said this month that Watson was soft. You can't overcome the hurdles Watson has if you're soft. His list of injuries includes problems with his back, shoulder, hamstring and calf, and they have kept him out of major moments like Australia's triumphant 2003 World Cup campaign and the 2006-07 Ashes whitewash.
And yet, after every strain, tear or break, he has remained upbeat about his future, confident he would return. If he lost his right arm in a freak accident you'd half expect him to start bowling with his left and declare he'd be back in the team within a year.
It's a resilience that makes him perfect for Test cricket. Following scores of 96, 89 and 93 this summer, his persistence was rewarded when he became the first Australian to reach triple-figures in a Test this season, after the team had managed 20 half-centuries. Having starred with twin hundreds in the Champions Trophy and firmly established himself as a one-day and Test opener, it capped off a fabulous period.
"The last six months have been for me my defining moment," Watson said. "The last six months have been something I've always dreamt of, being able to string so much cricket together throughout the Ashes, then the one-dayers and going on to the Champions Trophy and then on to India as well. For me leading up to the summer, that was a big accomplishment for me."
Despite the dropped chance on 99, he thoroughly deserved his century. Since Watson came into the Test line-up as an opener during the Ashes tour, he has been comfortably Australia's best batsman. He has scored 716 runs at 65.09, faced more balls than any of his team-mates and has more half-centuries to his name than any of his team-mates.
And all this from a makeshift opener. The selectors were criticised for thrusting Watson, a middle-order player at first-class level, into the opening position when they dropped Phillip Hughes before the Edgbaston Test. They've been proven correct. Had Hughes returned to the team at the MCG in place of an injured Ricky Ponting, Watson might not have even opened.
His technique is sound, he drives and pulls with force and discretion, and there's a hint of David Boon in the way he shuffles the bat in his hands at the bowler's release and then moves his body in behind the ball. A combination of 93 and 120 not out in his first Boxing Day Test, after his previous successes, means he must stay at the top of the order permanently.
The past decade has been full of hiccups, hurdles and hospital visits but Watson's resilience got him through. Now it's time for the rewards.
Brydon Coverdale is a staff writer at Cricinfo