England v Australia, 3rd npower Test, Edgbaston, 1st day

The Watson gamble pays off

Alex Brown at Edgbaston

July 30, 2009

Comments: 12 | Text size: A | A

Shane Watson reaches his half-century, England v Australia, 3rd Test, Edgbaston, 1st day, July 30, 2009
Shane Watson's celebrations were low key when he reached his half-century © Getty Images
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The Shane Watson era begins. Again. After a frustrating sequence of false-starts and opportunities denied, Watson was on Thursday handed the keys to a kingdom he has only ever viewed from a distance, and occasionally dreamed of occupying.

The notion of the oft-injured Watson opening the batting in Test cricket is not entirely novel. Several years ago, when it emerged Justin Langer was headed for retirement, Watson boldly declared himself available to partner Matthew Hayden at the top of the Australian order. His offer was met with guffaws by sections of the Australian public, but not the nation's cricketing hierarchy, who sensed in Watson an ability with the bat seldom supported by statistics.

An aborted stint atop the Queensland order culminated in four ducks from six innings and a humbling average of 4.67. Undaunted, Watson pressed ahead with plans for regular top-order exposure, and eventually found his mark with the Australian one-day side, for whom he has averaged 54 in 17 innings in the opening role. Centuries in the Caribbean and UAE were notable for their maturity and watchfulness as much as their power; the result of several technique-tightening sessions under the tutelage of Greg Chappell.

Test cricket loomed as a more elusive prize. Considered a certainty for the No. 6 role ahead of the 2006-07 Ashes series, Watson was struck down with a hamstring injury a week prior to the first Test. It sidelined him for the majority of the summer. History appeared set to repeat when Watson injured his thigh prior to the opening tour match at Hove last month, and was subsequently ruled out of the first two Tests as he gradually increased his bowling workload.

Then it happened - a selectorial bolt from the blue to rival Cameron White's elevation to the senior spin bowling position in India last year. Called into replace the out-of-sorts Phillip Hughes, Watson entered the Edgbaston Test having never batted higher than No. 6 in his eight previous matches, and with single-digit totals in each of his last four innings. Hardly a compelling case to open.

The reasoning behind his selection was equally unconvincing. Hughes, it emerged, had become the collateral damage for the Mitchell Johnson form saga, with Watson called up as much for seam bowling insurance as top-of-the-order runs. A less disruptive move might have been to simply replace the errant Johnson with the ever-dependable Stuart Clark, but selectors, in announcing their shock move, indicated they coveted Johnson's wicket-taking potential more than Hughes' run-scoring ability.

Just what impact demotion will have on the confidence of Hughes, who arrived on these shores hailed Australia's next batting superstar, remains to be seen. What was clear, however, was that a Watson failure with the bat would have placed further scrutiny on Australia's selection policies which have been inconsistent in the extreme, mostly in regards to spin bowling.

So it was that Watson marked centre for an innings that commenced at 5pm on account of a water-logged outfield. Those looking for symbolism might feel the better-late-than-never first day's play at Edgbaston was a fitting stage for Watson who, since his Test debut in 2005, has been limited to nine Tests due to a demoralising run of injuries and is only now threatening to turn the corner.

It was in 2005 that Watson, then on duty with Hampshire, suggested Andrew Flintoff's all-round heroics in the Ashes might convince Australia's selectors to trial their own multi-tasker for series to come. Four years on, Watson found himself engaged in combat with his one-time idol, who attempted with little subtlety to unnerve the rookie opener with long, exaggerated stares and intimidating body language.

Flintoff failed. Batting on the only dry 22-yard stretch in the greater West Midlands area, Watson drove and pulled with more assuredness than Hughes the previous month, helping Australia to a dashing start in a rain-marred match where speed and dynamism will be crucial to achieving a result. Watson's judicious leaving outside off-stump was arguably as impressive as his stroke play, proving he was capable of patience and maturity not required in the limited-overs game. Before long, Watson had advanced to his second career half-century; a milestone marked with a subdued raising of the bat. His mission is not yet complete.

Watson's stint at the crease was not without its anxious moments. He survived two confident lbw shouts - the second, attempting to sweep Graeme Swann, appeared desperately close on replays - but nonetheless advanced to stumps unbeaten on 62. A maiden Test century is in the offing on Friday. Australia's selectors can breathe a temporary sigh of relief.

Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo

RSS Feeds: Alex Brown

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by Banksiaman on (July 31, 2009, 10:43 GMT)

POSITIONS VACANT:

Australian National Cricket requires the following positions:-

1. Number 4 batsman - must use bat to hit ball; not have lost nerve and happy to accept that past performances will not guarantee tenure. Also agree to undergo regular vision checks.

2. Selection Panel - ability to make hard decisions. Also demonstrate ability to not select injured players and accept that left-arm fast bowlers such as Doug Bollinger ( and in earlier years Mike Whitney) deserve a chance. Also accept that world-class proven bowlers with great test records should be selected.

Posted by rustin on (July 31, 2009, 7:04 GMT)

Shane Watson was always a good batsman. His main problem was fitness. But I would have preferred him coming in place of Hussey. Hughes as the youngest member of the team needs support from the side.

Posted by Copernicus on (July 31, 2009, 6:47 GMT)

I don't think the Watson gamble paid off - on this pitch against that bowling, even the Nathan Hauritz gamble would have "paid off". This is such a featherbed that even if the rain holds off the match will be another drawn runfest. Yawn.

Posted by sam4cricket on (July 31, 2009, 6:34 GMT)

I had seen Shane Watson bat and bowl the whole of IPL last year and I do believe that he has the potential to be the best... if only he can keep the injuries at bay. But can be perform consistently as an opening bat is something I am not very sure. But he sure can be one of the greatest allrounders...

Posted by aakashvraman on (July 31, 2009, 6:11 GMT)

very good for shane watson. striking the ball as hard as he could. runs will flow if the english bowling is not good. beware england you will get trashed for if you do not bowl properly.

Posted by prasanth.kongati on (July 31, 2009, 6:08 GMT)

Shane Watson looked more than solid at the crease on Thursday evening partly helped by poor bowling from England. The England bowlers looked switched off through out the session. Shane did no harm to himself and the confidence of his captain by marshalling along well but not to forget that rub of the green totally going in his favour. I never believed that Watson can be a potential long term option as an opener for Oz. He is very talented player with sharp reflexes but that does not suffice to become an opener at Test level. He can bring his bowling option to the table and any captain around the globe will be tempted to make him a part of playing XI, format of the game not withstanding. But this move is very short sighted one considering the fact that he is not specialist opener and Australia has a long list of very good openers waiting in the wings from domestic circuit. Sure Watson for his abilities deserves to play in white clothing but not as an opener.

Posted by rohanbala on (July 31, 2009, 5:36 GMT)

This Australian team is quite strong as far as batting is concerned but what they lack is "quality" bowling. They could have easily won the Cardiff test if their bowling was effective in the England second innings. The selectors will soon realise their folly in not including Stuart Clark in the place of either Siddle or Hauritz. Ponting will have to utilise the other spin options in Clarke/Katich/North to support Hauritz when England bats last in this test.

Posted by benny81 on (July 31, 2009, 4:40 GMT)

I reckon hughesy would have made the same runs last night. But good on Watson for taking his chance. I just hope Ponting will use his bowlers well. If there were that many bowlers in my team, at least a few of them would get cranky during the long spells they're not bowling.

Posted by JGuru on (July 31, 2009, 4:39 GMT)

Shane Watson looked more than solid at the crease on Thursday evening partly helped by poor bowling from England. The England bowlers looked switched off through out the session. Shane did no harm to himself and the confidence of his captain by marshalling along well but not to forget that rub of the green totally going in his favour. I never believed that Watson can be a potential long term option as an opener for Oz. He is very talented player with sharp reflexes but that does not suffice to become an opener at Test level. He can bring his bowling option to the table and any captain around the globe will be tempted to make him a part of playing XI, format of the game not withstanding. But this move is very short sighted one considering the fact that he is not specialist opener and Australia has a long list of very good openers waiting in the wings from domestic circuit. Sure Watson for his abilities deserves to play in white clothing but not as an opener.

Posted by aditya.pidaparthy on (July 31, 2009, 4:06 GMT)

A pretty sensational headline. Watson played well today and looks set for a huge score, but it would be rather myopic to put him in the opener's role permanently. All said and done it should not be forgotten that 1. Hughes is 20 and scored against SA who have one of the best pace attacks and fairly tough pitches. 2. His form on the tour has been indifferent rather than been down the chute, and he failed against some good short pitched bowling on wickets that supported such bowling, not to mention a dodgy decision here and there. 3. The selectors really put down a young kid by going for pretender to prove his worth on a flat track which the curator himself mentioned would be a graveyard for bowlers.

Way to go to build a team for teh future. I like seeing the Aussies beaten, but not like this, give the men a fighting chance and then if someone beats them they are worth their salt.

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