Watson ready to step into Hughes' shoes
Shane Watson is ready to become a makeshift opener if Phillip Hughes' woes continue, but the allrounder expects it will be the added value of his bowling that earns him a Test return. Watson, who has recovered from a thigh injury, is officially in the squad as a specialist batsman and has the backing of the coach Tim Nielsen to fill any spot in the order.
While Hughes has struggled, particularly against Andrew Flintoff, in posting 57 runs in the opening two Tests, it would be just as big a risk to replace him because there are no other genuine openers in the squad. One of the major criticisms of the selectors is they don't have cover for Hughes or Simon Katich, but they believe Watson is capable of doing the job. He does as well.
"Definitely," Watson said. "I've been working on my batting, especially the past couple of months, tightening up my technique a little more. I've always said I believe I have the game - and the mental game - to bat anywhere in the top order. I've been batting from three to four for Queensland for the last three or four years and opening the batting in one-day cricket."
Watson did have a stint at the top in the Sheffield Shield a couple of summers ago when he hoped to break into the Test team after Justin Langer's retirement, but the experiment ended before Christmas. "That was nice and successful," he said while smiling. Have things changed since then? "Yes."
The Australians, who are down 1-0, head to Northampton on Wednesday to prepare for Friday's tour match, Watson's first game of the tour. After spending two weeks on his fitness following the injury picked up during last month's World Twenty20, he hopes to deliver between 12 and 15 overs a day to prove he is capable of adding to his eight Tests. He also dreams of the days when his body frees him of the restrictions.
"[Up to 15 overs is] the ideal workload for me until I can get through some games consistently and then my ultimate goal is to have a free rein on what I bowl, but at the moment that's a little while away," he said. "That's the thing that I'm aiming for and hopefully I can get some continuous cricket into my body."
Watson believes he can create greater balance in the side, offering contributions with both disciplines. However, unless Australia drop someone in the top six - Marcus North scored a century in Cardiff and Michael Hussey's form is improving - it is unlikely he will squeeze into the XI unless Hughes continues to underwhelm.
"I bring a bowling option to the team, as well as batting in the top order," he said. "It's always helpful for the captain to have another option."
Watson has not played since the Twenty20 loss to Sri Lanka in Nottingham last month and has gradually increased his bowling load. He has been joined in rehabilitation by Brett Lee, who has been fighting a stomach injury since before the series started and is battling to be fit for next week's third Test. Watson knows better than anyone about injuries and said it would be a miracle if Lee was able to play in the tour game.
"It normally takes at least a week of building up your bowling to be physically fit to play in a game," he said. "I'd say it'd be a long shot for him to be fit, but miracles can happen."
The other major fear for Australia is the form of Mitchell Johnson, who was so erratic at Lord's that his place has come under question. Johnson has spent a lot of time with Watson at Queensland, where they played before moving interstate, and is trying to find the form that made him a world-beater in South Africa four months ago.
"Mitch is travelling okay," Watson said. "He knows he's not exactly at his best, but it wasn't too long ago that he was at his absolute best in South Africa. At his best, he's one of the best bowlers in the world."
Johnson's lack of form adds to the side's troubles and even the fringe members of the squad are feeling the stress. "There's pressure on everyone," Watson said. "We've got to be at our best - no excuses - and we have to stand up as a group. Each individual has to do everything we can to leave these shores with the Ashes in our hand."
Watson was in England four years ago when Australia lost that series, but he was playing for Hampshire instead of fighting for a Test place. He didn't expect the explosion of interest in the contest since the host's victory at Lord's, but won't blame that for his team's under-performance at the home of cricket.
They have a week to work out how to keep their opponents quiet, something they failed to do in 2005. "It can be very difficult at times when England have their tail up," he said. "They are extremely good frontrunners: the team, the public and the media. But we can't let other influences affect our preparation or psyche. That's something we've got to be very conscious of."
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo