Australia v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Sydney, 3rd day January 5, 2010

Nineties suit nearly-man Watson

So close, so commanding, so gripping

Shane Watson is not the sort of player who should scribble the number of Test centuries he wants on the fridge. That sort of motivation is better suited to batters with traditional career paths. It is more appropriate for Watson, an emotional man who has drifted between episodes of heart-break and body-break, to leave his mark by achieving the most 90s.

Most things about Watson are almost perfect: the body, the cover drive, the pulling and the attention to fitness. Why ruin the trend of his life by posting blot-free centuries? From the moments of his first back injury and blonde highlights he has been a nearly man. To his immense credit, he has learned to deal with the status.

Of course he has moped about his failing body and lack of extended bat raises, but after every bout of sooking comes the committed return. He deserves all the half-centuries, it's just the hundreds that don't suit the oh-so-close image. When the blemish was allowed in Melbourne, where his 120 not out came via a drop on 99, it seemed his next trend would be letting the nervousness disappear in a shower of three figures whenever he got close.

However, Watson's romance with despair reappeared the ball after a pure cover drive off Umar Gul for the boundary that took him to 97. It was the shot of such authority that with any other batsman the expectation would be a follow-up swing to bring up the milestone. The next moment is never assured with Watson, who has previously dislocated a shoulder while fielding in his second Test and thought he was having a heart attack when suffering food poisoning.

This time he didn't expect the extra bounce of Gul's off-cutter and because of his push-forward-first move, was unable to shift back in time to cover the movement. The ball hit the edge of Watson's angled bat and was re-directed to Faisal Iqbal at second slip, ending the brightest innings of the match while raising hands to faces in the stands.

Spectators shouldn't have been shocked by Watson's new trademark, which has occurred three times in his past eight innings. By the end of the day Watson wasn't too bothered either.

"To be totally honest, I'm not really worried about it," Watson said. "I was really happy with the way I batted today. Of course it's always nice to break that hundred barrier, but I was lucky I didn't get that ball earlier in the innings. It decked in and bounced more than I thought ... There was always a chance I would get a ball like that but unfortunately I got it in my late 90s."

If he continues his current pattern he could level the record of Rahul Dravid and Steve Waugh, who have ten 90s, by the end of next season's Ashes series. Watson's batting since he has stepped up to the top of the order has been Australia's most successful and polished. During eight Tests after rejoining the team he has 819 runs at 63.00, including seven half-centuries and the out-of-sync hundred.

In his current demeanour he is playing with the authority of Matthew Hayden, his old Queensland team-mate, but displaying less muscle and much more style. His driving creates gasps and his self-belief extends to pulling or hooking whenever the ball is short. There are not many batsmen in the world who do that consistently, and the shot was responsible for his three sixes.

There were also 11 fours, three of which came from pulls, and only one, an inside edge from his second delivery which ended up at fine leg, didn't go where he wanted. He was dropped on 18 when a hook sped through Danish Kaneria's hands at fine leg and went over the rope, but it was where he aimed it.

This was a classy performance from a player who has found a new home at the top of the order. In the beginning Hughes was Watson's partner, showing some valuable grit before falling on 37. Watson had replaced Hughes in England but such is the right-hander's form that he has the opening spot for as long as wants, or he could demand a move to the middle order. Throw in his useful bowling - but not his mouthy follow-throughs - and he has become Australia's MVP.

When Watson looks back at this golden summer he should not glance and grimace at the 90s in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. Those grumpy thoughts should be saved for the 89 in Perth, just one run short of his most suitable run-range. Now that was a waste.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo