Patient Watson passes the test
The way a man is perceived - by his peers, by the public, by the world at large - can change greatly in a day of Test cricket. The Indian fielders gave Shane Watson a few verbals in the morning session because they saw him as the most vulnerable among the Australians, a bit of a softie in that department. Watson, though, didn't allow that, or other tactics, to get to him and was around to block the last ball of the day having scored 101 off 279.
Watson stretched way forward to that ball from Pragyan Ojha, defended, tucked the bat under his arm and walked back. Rahul Dravid at slip was the first man to congratulate him. Then came Suresh Raina, all the way from midwicket, followed by Harbhajan Singh, who had played cat-and-mouse with Watson all day long. Zaheer Khan, who'd had a spat with Ricky Ponting earlier before bowling a superb spell of reverse-swing to bring India back, called out to Watson from the other end of the ground. Watson was perhaps too spent after more than six hours of fierce concentration and had to be nudged by Tim Paine to look Zaheer's way; he acknowledged the generous applause with a raise of the hand.
This was the same Watson with whom, two years ago, an Indian cricketer had had a physical altercation on the field. The same Watson whose antics often detract from his stature. The prat. The way a man is perceived can change greatly in a day of Test cricket.
Perhaps India didn't expect such an effort from Watson. For more than six hours - this was the first time he'd batted through a day in Tests - he didn't hit one shot over the infield. He spent 110 deliveries without hitting a boundary and was run-less for spells of 14 balls, 14 balls, 11 balls, 12 balls, and 12 balls, separated by the odd single or two. That might be business as usual for somebody like Dravid but Watson was defending out of his skin.
There seemed to be an exercise for the muscle memory too. As he took stance, Watson kept his right hand on his right knee until very late, holding the bat in just his top hand until the bowler was about to deliver. Perhaps it was a way of reminding himself to go soft on the bottom hand, perhaps it was a conscious exercise to ensure the bottom hand was not too stiff. Whatever its purpose, it worked.
The clear shift in his approach came when Watson was involved in Ricky Ponting's run-out, calling for a single after a ricochet off forward short leg. After that, he scored just 37 off 146 deliveries. Scoring slowly wasn't an indulgence, it was a necessity. After that Ponting run-out, India operated smartly. The bowlers responded to the captain's field sets and made sure boundaries would not come without risky shots.
Watson later apologised for the slow going. "Unfortunately 45 runs [in a session] isn't great entertainment, is it?" he said. "We are here to provide entertainment, but the Indians did bowl really well. Their fields were excellent, it did make it really hard to score and rotate the strike. I suppose that's what Test cricket is all about. They were tough sessions to get through. Hopefully those 45 runs become very valuable later on in the game."
The areas to score against the offspin of Harbhajan Singh were over midwicket and square on the off side. Ojha operated similarly, only with a slightly more protected off side, because against him Watson would be playing with the turn if trying to hit into the off side. All day long the spinners kept tossing it up, inviting the famous Watson slog-sweep. Harbhajan generously mixed in topspinners for the top edge. All day long Watson kept resisting, waiting for the ones down the wrong line to work away for runs. He had seen Michael Clarke perish while trying to manufacture a cut. That route was not taken by him unless the ball was really short. He faced 159 dot balls from the two spinners and hit just one boundary. Even the infamous Watson 90s couldn't draw a nervous response.
In scoring his third century in three innings on this tour, Watson cleared many tests today. He played a game that doesn't come naturally to him, he concentrated hard, and he kept a check on his emotions. Even after a supremely uncharacteristic effort, Watson knows his work is only half done because of the falling wickets at the other end, and partly because of the slow run-rate. He knows a day of such hard work can easily come to nought. Then again, who said Test cricket was easy?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo