Weary Watson willing for work
Australia's investment in Shane Watson is finally paying dividends, but the question of sustainability continues to weigh heavily upon the minds of Ricky Ponting and the selection panel. Watson, perhaps the fittest player in international cricket, was mentally and physically fatigued after two day's play during which he claimed two wickets from 12 overs and amassed 96 unbeaten runs from 146 deliveries.
It is a testament to Watson's dedication to training and general resilience that, in the final month of the busiest year of his career, he is fulfilling the dual roles of fourth seamer and opening batsman with aplomb. He will arrive at the Adelaide Oval on Sunday one clean strike away from his maiden Test century, and will presumably be called upon again in West Indies' second innings to provide bowling support.
It is, by any stretch, a massive workload, and one Ponting is attempting to manage as best he can. Not since Bob Simpson has a regular Australian opener shouldered such bowling responsibilities, and Ponting was wary not to throw the ball Watson's way in the problematic quest for West Indies' tenth wicket on Saturday until he really had to, conscious of his need to bat immediately afterwards.
Ponting has spoken previously of his desire to see Watson assume a more conventional allrounder's role in the middle order, thus allowing him to bowl unrestricted, but he will be difficult to budge while he is scoring so heavily in the openers' position. Watson's horrendous run of injuries over the years seems to support calls for a cautious approach to his overall management - particularly as he is now considered a first-choice Australian player in all three forms of the game - but for now, the Australians are content to gamble on his durability.
"He's a bit weary more than anything else," Tim Nielsen, the Australia coach, said after stumps. "He's had two full days on the ground, bowled some overs and he's just a bit stiff and sore and mentally worn out. He's obviously pretty chuffed that he's on 96 not out. He's looking forward to a good meal and a big sleep and hopefully turning up and getting another hundred or so."
The feet are often the first things to go when energy levels trough, and Watson showed few overt signs of fatigue on Saturday. Footwork is an area Watson has spent much time addressing of late - he had been trapped lbw in five of six innings as opener entering the Adelaide Test - and save for a hopeful first-ball appeal from Kemar Roach, he was nimble and sure-footed at the crease.
Watson will face more intimidating attacks on more challenging surfaces over the course of his career but, as the sporting cliche goes, a man can only play what's in front of him. To that end, Watson drove, cut and pulled with superb timing and precision, eroding much of the advantage West Indies had claimed earlier in the day with the spirited wagging of their tail.
A century on Sunday would be just reward for a player who has battled against injury and public perception since his Test debut almost five years ago. Considered by many to be a stop-gap opener when pitch-forked into the Edgbaston Test, Watson's maturity in the role was evident on Saturday as his score coincided with a pair of ducks to Phillip Hughes and Phil Jaques during New South Wales' 50-over defeat to Tasmania. The position is his for sometime yet.
"If anything [a century] will take a little bit of weight off his shoulders personally," Nielsen said. "He's done it at one-day level. The biggest thing about succeeding at international level is understanding you can do it and experiencing it. If he can get across the line for this first hundred that will take that doubt away from him, and then the sky's the limit. Belief is a massive part and that's one step of it tomorrow if he's successful."
One man who has taken a particularly keen interest in Watson's evolution as a batsman is Brendan Nash, his one-time Queensland team-mate and present-day Test adversary. Nash remembered Watson as a cross-bat middle-order dasher during his days with the Bulls. No longer.
"He always had that technique and was always working very hard," Nash said. "That work looks like it's paying off and coming through for him. I noticed he's changed his stance. Looking at him batting in the top order now or opening ... he's really had to tighten up and look to hit straight. His driving is looking very solid and he's obviously a very good puller and hooker of the ball. We're going to have our work cut out."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo