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January 1, 2010
Five years have passed since Shane Watson and Mohammad Asif made their Test debuts at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Despite inauspicious outings - Watson fell over delivering his first ball, Asif failed to take a wicket in either innings - great things were expected of the duo by their respective nations, both of which had invested much time and many resources into their development.
This week, Watson and Asif return to the SCG having managed just 14 further Tests since their initial Sydney experience. Injuries, role realignment and, in the case of Asif, drug indiscretions have severely disrupted what might have been a prosperous few years at a time when both teams were desperately attempting to unearth a new generation of superstars. This certainly wasn't in the script.
Fate, however, has conspired to deliver both players back to the SCG in the kind of senior roles originally predicted for them. Granted, few in 2005 would have tipped Watson to one day open the innings at a time when he was sandwiched between Adam Gilchrist and Shane Warne at No. 7, but his match-winning ability with bat and ball, along with the selection flexibility he offers, were precisely the outcomes Australia's selectors had hoped would materialise.
"It seems so long ago, my Test debut here," Watson recalled. "It's amazing how at the time I thought I was ready to go. I thought I was in a good place back when I was a youngster, but you don't realise how much you can learn and the things you really can develop as a batsman, as a cricketer and as a person.
"The confidence definitely plays a big part, knowing I've performed and been able to be successful whether it's been one-day cricket or Test match cricket at the top of the order, and taking on some of the best bowlers in the world with the brand new ball. That makes a big difference to any sportsman. Physically I'm in a much different place to what I was when I was 23. I was more like a rugby league player than a cricketer at that stage. I feel I'm more like a cricketer now physically. It's amazing how things develop and pan out the way they do."
Australia defeated Pakistan in the 2005 Sydney Test by nine wickets, largely due to the first innings double-century by Ricky Ponting and the combined 13-wicket haul from Stuart MacGill and Shane Warne. Five years on, it will be Pakistan fielding two spinners as Danish Kaneria, who claimed seven first innings wickets in his last Sydney appearance, joins Saeed Ajmal on a surface expected to take turn despite its greenish tinge two days from the coin toss.
Watson recalls the damage inflicted by Kaneria in 2005 - his maiden Test innings was terminated by the Pakistani leg spinner, caught Asif, for 31 - and expected him to prove a potent addition to the tourist's attack after missing the Boxing Day Test with a finger injury. "He knows how to bowl well here in Sydney," Watson said. "He does get a lot of revs on the ball, whether it's his top-spinner, his leggie or his wrong'un. He will definitely be a big challenge, there's no doubt about that, and I think it will give them a little more firepower with it spinning in Sydney. It's going to be a big challenge and as a batting unit hopefully we can make sure he doesn't have the Test that he really wants."
Asif, meanwhile, will be called upon to lead Pakistan's attack and replicate the control and accuracy that defined his performance at the MCG last week. The erratic, no-ball prone fast bowler who returned match figures off 0-88 from 18 overs on debut re-emerged in Australia as a purveyor of precision, if not raw pace, to tie down the hosts' batsmen for extended periods.
Still just 27, Asif has before him the opportunity to put right a career that veered wildly off course after his last appearance in Sydney. The path back to the SCG may have been treacherous, but it might yet lead to a bright future.
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