Watson shrugs off big-match nerves
A well-known Australian journalist once wrote that he looked like Tarzan and played like Jane. After winning his second Man-of-the-Match award in an ICC Champions Trophy final - he starred with 2 for 11, and 57 not out in 2006 - Shane Watson is perfectly entitled to ask for a second opinion. He still looks like Tarzan, or a bloke from Manpower as Matthew Hayden once jokingly remarked, but there's steel to his game that makes him quite a formidable Jane, one that most feminists would be rather proud of.
Many have scoffed at Australia's search for a genuine allrounder. In Watson, what they possess is a very accomplished batsman who can play anywhere in the order, who's also more than capable as fourth or fifth bowler. He's no Andrew Flintoff with the ball, but his record with the bat is far superior. Those Poor Man's Flintoff labels may need to be thrown away as well.
Given his wretched luck with injuries, Watson has played only 90 games since making his debut in 2002. When the selectors persisted with him, the naysayers were contemptuous, calling it nothing but a Quixotic quest for an allrounder that Australia haven't had since the days of Keith Miller and Richie Benaud. It was only when they started exploring new opening options at the DLF Cup in Malaysia in 2006 - breaking up the hugely successful combination of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden - that Watson started to show regular glimpses of what he could do.
The selectors didn't just replace one muscular Queenslander, Hayden, with another. Hayden would return and have a mammoth World Cup campaign, but Watson did enough at the tiny Kinrara Oval to suggest that he would be around for the long haul. He was back to batting lower down the order by the World Cup, but his 145 runs included just one dismissal. The four wickets, and an economy rate under five on batsmen-friendly pitches, were a welcome bonus.
Even then though, there were glitches, most notably in the St.Lucia semi-final where he was the only bowler that a shell-shocked South African side could score against. It was an experience that Watson hasn't forgotten. "The thing that I've learnt about playing in bigger games throughout my career is that it is in the end another game of cricket," he said after his unbeaten 105 on Monday night.
"Previously, I've taken it as more than a game. The thing that stands out for me was the semi-final of the World Cup in 2007. I was so pumped up to do well that I ended up being overawed by the situation. Today, to be involved in such a great win is definitely one of the better feelings I've had in my career."
Gilchrist departed the stage less than a year after that World Cup triumph, and Hayden followed a year later, leaving Watson with the responsibility of building Australia's innings. Much as he admires those that have gone before, he's more than happy to do that his own way. "I think it's more about developing as a cricketer myself," he said, when asked about how much he had been influenced by the most intimidating of batting duos.
"Seeing Matt Hayden and Adam Gilchrist bat the way they did, it's a big opportunity for me to fill the void there. They also got off to fliers and got big totals in the big events. Gilchrist in the World Cup final and Hayden right through the World Cup showed how good they were. I definitely love batting at the top of the order against the new ball."
When you've been as unfortunate with injuries as he has, you need things to fall your way as well. But for Shane Warne being captain and coach of the Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League's inaugural season, it's doubtful whether Watson would have got a contract. He cost the under-rated franchise just $125,000 and he repaid them with bustling spells of hit-the-deck bowling and powerful hitting. By tournament end, there was little doubt that he had been the bargain of the season, contributing even more than Warne to the Royals's success.
"That's what got my confidence up as a player and got me back in the Australian side a bit quicker than I thought I would," said Watson. "That was a massive turning point in my career. To be playing on such a big stage when I wasn't playing for Australia was a big opportunity. I learnt a lot from the captaincy and coaching ability of Warnie. It's helped me in bigger games as well, to control my emotions."
There are many who question whether the IPL can develop players. In his case, Watson was certain that it had. "It came along at the perfect time in my career," he said, "and it was one of the most enjoyable things I've ever been involved in."
Having shared a record partnership with Watson during the semi-final romp against England, Ricky Ponting was in no doubt as to the progress that had been made. "I think people have started to see the real Shane Watson in the last couple of matches," he said. "Now that he's back to full fitness, he's showing everybody how good he can be. He bowled terrifically against England and then went out and scored 130-odd, but you can't get much tougher than tonight's situation.
"To see youngsters like Shane and Cameron White stand up and get us across the line was very satisfying. I think it's one of our strengths is that when the so-called big names don't stand up, others get up and do the job. The young guys are starting to make major impacts in world events."
Watson now averages 49.68 after 30 games as opener, with four centuries. At times he appears naive and almost gauche, embarrassed by praise that comes his way. Perhaps his struggles have shaped him. "In the end, you've got to deal with the cards you've been dealt," Watson said. "It's made me a stronger person and made me realise that things can be taken away from you very quickly. A game like today's makes everything worthwhile."
There's a beautiful Trisha Yearwood song with the line, Fate's got cards that it don't want to show. In Watson's case, some of the cards have turned out to be trumps. And when it comes to his cricket, the unassuming hulk who was once spooked by a ghost at Lumley Castle is no Walkaway Joe.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo