Watson's hundred sends through Hampshire in thriller
Hampshire 359 for 8 (Watson 132, McMillan 42, Udal 44*) defeated Surrey 358 for 6 (Batty 158, Thorpe 60) by two wickets
A groin injury robbed this match of a gladiatorial match-up between England's brash new boy Kevin Pietersen and the discarded Graham Thorpe, but a record run-chase from Hampshire more than compensated. Surrey racked up 359 - which they considered ample - but Shane Watson hit a pulsating 132 from 105 balls in his first game as Shane Warne's replacement to ensure Pietersen's big-hitting wasn't missed.
An eighth-wicket stand of 63 between Watson and Shaun Udal forcibly dragged Hampshire from 279 for 7 to just 17 runs from victory before Udal and Chris Tremlett knocked off the remaining runs to book Hampshire's place in the semi-finals for the first time since 2000. "That was just an astonishing game of cricket," Udal said afterwards. "We always felt we had a chance - you have to think that. We had an astonishing innings from Shane Watson. We did well; we did it in a professional way, in a very accomplished fashion."
In the morning, Pietersen's absence due to his injury meant the spotlight belonged to Thorpe. He was denied the chance to captain Surrey due to Mark Ramprakash's return from a broken thumb, but he was bubbly while batting and while fielding, too. Thorpe hasn't been this animated for some time - he clearly doesn't want people to think he has reverted to his old head-hanging, brooding stereotype.
He received the loudest applause of the day as he strode to the crease, purpose pumping visibly in his legs. The applause for his first run was almost as deafening. Fifty-nine runs later, Thorpe was welcomed back into the pavilion after a classy, composed 60. Yet, the scene from two years ago when he scored his magnificent hundred against South Africa in his comeback Test on the same ground was incomparable. Then he was the returning hero, today he returned as dispensable to England's cause. How has this happened?
His Test average since that hundred is 56.37 and he has scored 1,635 runs. He has seemed happier, more open in that time - more importantly, he appeared happy with himself. He had become the Graham Thorpe he wanted to be. Then he struggled in South Africa in the winter; his form this season hasn't been encouraging, averaging 34.50 from 11 innings, which is only four runs shy of Pietersen's season average, but the man with the bigger bouffant has the momentum behind him.
Thorpe is the last of the breed from the 1990s, when England's mentality was firmly set on losing. The chances of him playing for England again are slim; even with injuries, England are likely to go with a younger man. Yet, he hasn't been allowed the send-offs afforded to Alec Stewart and Michael Atherton, nor has he gone out gloriously as his great mate Nasser Hussain did last summer, a centurion and match-winner at Lord's. Instead, Thorpe's last action as a Test batsman was a single off Bangladesh's Aftab Ahmed, a 19-year-old occasional medium-pacer. A month ago, maybe even a day ago, he would have been justified in dreaming of hitting the runs that brought England the Ashes.
So Thorpe didn't have the chance to abdicate. Instead his strings were yanked from above by those who had brought him back so memorably at the Oval two years ago. So what now? Many had expected him to announce his retirement immediately after his rejection. On today's evidence, he is very happy, and more than able, to play a full, vital part for Surrey this season. Their coach Steve Rixon has said Thorpe will reassess the situation at the end of the season, while Thorpe issued a statement saying he was "looking forward to playing a key role for Surrey." So, Pietersen's gain is also Surrey's.
What price a few boos if Pietersen had been passed fully fit for this match; what price him revelling in those boos? As it was, Watson's ferocious hitting meant that England's golden boy was forgotten for once. It could have been a much different story. Surrey's openers James Benning's and Jonathan Batty's blistering start meant that a big run chase was on for Hampshire after just 10 overs - then they must have been cursing Pietersen's absence. The partnership reached three figures in the 13th over, Tremlett, named yesterday in England's Ashes squad, and Billy Taylor leaking 62 from their opening eight overs. Tremlett's rhythm was badly disrupted by 22-year-old Benning; a handy hitter but no Matthew Hayden or Justin Langer.
Udal, who has taken over captaincy responsibility from Warne, was forced to bring himself on as fifth change in only the 11th over. Surrey's openers put on 142 - the kind of foundation that Pietersen will be hoping for from Strauss and Trescothick come next Thursday.
Batty went on to an undefeated 158. His 115-run partnership with Thorpe was a mastermind in controlling the tempo; Thorpe's contribution a typical mix of boundaries and singles. His ability to push the score along without having to go for the big shots was rare in the England team; Ian Bell, who seems to have inherited this role, has a lot to live up to. "We thought 350 was a fantastic score," Ramprakash admitted on Sky Sports afterwards, "and Jonathan Batty played a fantastic knock, and we were very, very happy with that."
But it was Watson's day. "It's great to play well at the right time and get us over the line," said Watson, who didn't bowl owing to a leg injury. "It was a nice flat wicket to bat on and would have been a bit nasty to bowl on." If Watson isn't deemed good enough for a place in the Ashes squad, England will have reasons for concern.
Daniel Brigham is editorial assistant of The Wisden Cricketer