The Watson gamble pays off
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