Impressive Watson stakes Ashes claim
Shane Watson believes a series of coaching sessions with Greg Chappell has prepared his technique for the rigours of top-order batting. While recovering from back stress fractures during the Australian summer, Watson worked closely with Chappell, the head coach of the Centre of Excellence, to streamline his strokeplay and steady his trigger movements.
Watson batted with freedom during his 96-ball stay at the crease on Friday, plundering a thunderous 84 that included 15 boundaries and a six against Northamptonshire. Elevated to No. 3 in the Australian order, Watson had few problems negotiating the short-pitched deliveries that accounted for embattled Phillip Hughes, hooking and pulling with assuredness in just his first outing of the tour.
Watson's Test record - 257 runs at 19.76, including single-digit totals in his last four dismissals - hardly makes for impressive reading, but recent performances at first-class and one-day international level suggest he is a batsman improved. Two centuries atop the Australian ODI order in the past 12 months were convincing enough to prompt selectors to install him as the team's sole reserve batsman for the Ashes tour, and his dashing innings at Wantage Road will maintain the pressure on Hughes and Marcus North ahead of the Edgbaston Test.
Those performances, coupled with Chappell's tuition, have convinced Watson he is ready to accept the call should it arrive in the coming weeks.
"It's definitely helped my game a lot to be able to try and eradicated all the complex things that used to go in with my technique and in my mind," Watson said of his sessions with Chappell. "Just simplify them to give myself the best chance of performing consistently.
"It's my pre-movement. I used to have a forward press and was on my heels a bit more. Now it's just loading up on my toes - keeping still and loading up on my toes to make sure I'm in a really powerful position."
As impressive as his efforts at Wantage Road were, the selection of Watson in the top-order would represent a sizeable leap into the unknown for Australia. In eight Tests, he has never batted higher than No. 6 and passed 50 just once in 13 innings. Should Hughes' batting deteriorate further, selectors could opt to elevate Michael Hussey - who has averaged in excess of 55 in eight innings as a Test opener - while slotting Watson into the middle order.
But the likelihood of such moves being made for Edgbaston appears remote. Australia posted imposing totals in two of three innings at Sophia Gardens and Lord's, and selectors have more pressing issues to address in the fast bowling department. Presumably, they would be anxious to avoid making major changes at both ends of the XI mid-series.
Watson, though, is doing his chances no harm. And a strong performance with the ball over the final two days against Northamptonshire could set the stage for an intriguing selection duel with North for the allrounder's berth over the final three Ashes Tests.
"In the end, all I can do is perform and see what the selectors are going to do with the team," he said. "I'm not targeting one specific spot. I've just got to go out there and perform when I get the opportunity and see what happens.
"I feel like I've got the game and the technique and the mental side of things in the order to be able to give myself the best chance to combat (England's fast bowlers). They're some of the best bowlers in the world and it's one of the biggest challenges you could really face in world cricket facing those guys with a brand new ball on a fresh pitch. But I feel like I've got the game to handle that and it would be an awesome to challenge to have that opportunity."
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo