October 28, 2010

The liberation of Watto

Shane Watson has fought off injuries, succeeded at the top of the batting order, and revelled in the freedom of not having to bear an allrounder's burden

The first time Shane Watson heard about the Ashes was in 1989. It was a good time for an Australian boy to start taking an interest, as Allan Border's men were turning from easy-beats towards world beaters. Sitting next to his dad, the nine-year-old Watson would listen to the radio late on crisp winter nights in the Queensland city of Ipswich.

Twenty-one years and a few revolutions later, Australia have slid from their long-standing peak to rest at No. 5 in the Test rankings. Watson is now muscular and mature, a dominant presence in the side as an opener and fast-medium bowler. Over the next three months a new batch of children will be introduced to the Ashes thanks to the internet and mobile phones. It's nowhere near as romantic as the not-so-olden days, but the young hearts of cricket lovers and learners don't judge the medium. They are attracted by the major performers - and Watson has become one of those.

Watson was besotted by the game as a child and appears to fall for it more with every success. During his tough years in his early- and mid-20s, the times when playing for a month without an injury scare was an achievement, the game seemed mostly a chore. A pursuit to endure rather than enjoy. Since he first became an unconventional choice as opener, at Edgbaston in the 2009 Ashes, he has become settled and relaxed, a modern cricketer finally in control of his body and destiny.

"To go and open the batting in all forms of the game for nearly a year, I feel I'm in a really good place," he said. "I'm getting a lot of cricket and a lot of continuity with my cricket and I'm not breaking down at the moment. To see that continued development is very exciting because at the start I didn't have that much continuity. To have that and see the gradual improvement of all facets of my game is very exciting."

The switch to opener should have broken Watson, who was previously a middle-order stylist, but instead it liberated him from his allrounder status. While the multi-skilled cricketer is treasured, he is under pressure every time he's called to do something. After the 2005 Ashes defeat Watson was promoted to the Test side in the hope he could be Australia's Andrew Flintoff.

That project was abandoned after three years, eight Tests and various injuries. The experiment to partner him with Simon Katich at the top of the order has succeeded not only in terms of runs but in a dramatic change of psyche. By having one main job, he no longer has to worry about being everything to everyone.

"Absolutely, with opening the batting, the reason why you're in the team is for batting," he said. "If you're not scoring runs, it doesn't matter how well I'm going with the ball, you're not going to fit into the make-up of the team. There's no doubt it's taken the pressure off my bowling."

At the start of the last Australian summer he wondered how his body would be able to cope with opening and delivering 10 to 15 overs an innings. "There's no doubt I know that I can do it now," he said. "I've been able to do it for six to eight months, and that really comes down to Ricky Ponting and how great he has been at looking after my workload and understanding that. He's been very kind to me."

As a permanent part-time bowler Warson is a huge asset, chipping in regularly. He claimed 11 victims in the two Tests against Pakistan in July. The easing of pressure on his all-round performance has actually released more wickets. In his 14 Tests as an opener, he has two centuries and averages 50.44, figures that sit alongside 26 breakthroughs at 24.23. They are the numbers of someone who is much more than a handy allrounder.

"I've been able to do it for six to eight months, and that really comes down to Ricky Ponting and how great he has been at looking after my workload. He's been very kind to me"
Watson on being able to cope with opening and bowling

But through all of Watson's gains the side has struggled when it has run into in-form opponents. It happened in England last year, when the hosts won the final Test to grab the Ashes, and in July when Pakistan drew the two-game series. Two more losses in India, where Watson raised his second Test century, leave Australia starting the Ashes on their worst losing streak since 1988-89.

"The way to hit back is to start winning again," he said. "It hasn't been ideal, the last three Tests especially. We did play some really good cricket in India at times, but then we played some not so good cricket as well, for an hour or a session. In India, and against really good teams, it means the difference between winning and losing.

"There's no doubt that's a thing we've got to get right as a team for this Ashes. To try to reduce the amount of damage that we can have, either batting or bowling. If we can get to that point, which I know we can - we've got the talent and skill to do that - then we're going to be very successful and achieve the things we want to achieve as a team."

During the last Ashes it was two sessions that cost Australia the series. The first major lapse came after the toss at Lord's when Mitchell Johnson's action deactivated and England's openers sped to 126 at lunch. At The Oval it was the second session of the second day. Eight wickets fell - five went to Stuart Broad - to ensure the urn would be handed over again.

"They were the two sessions that in the end meant we didn't win the Ashes," Watson said. "Against good teams, they are going to take the game away from you. That's a really important part of this Ashes, trying to eliminate those bad periods."

Watson will enter the series at the Gabba on November 25 content with his life and his technique. He is recently married, lives in Sydney and trains with New South Wales, his third state side. Before the first Test he will appear in his first games for the Blues, despite being "a Queenslander through and through". That sort of thing is accepted now.

The cricket world is unrecognisable from when Watson was a boy. He is admired by impressionable children in India, where he is currently without an IPL franchise, and in Australia for his deeds in all three formats. But he grew up listening to the Ashes, wishing that one day he could have an impact on the game's oldest contest.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo