Watson plot most intriguing of many
So there we were, us privileged broadcast folk, gathered alongside the pitch at a quarter past ten this morning and chewing hard on the cricket fat. Chaps from Sky and BBC Radio and Channel 5, all with a view and an aside, one or two even with a scoop. Simon Kerrigan would play apparently, not Chris Tremlett. Really? So who would the Aussies rather bat against? Don't answer that. And Shane Watson is going in at first drop. You begin to feel for his front pad immediately.
Then we see Jonny Bairstow, keeper's gauntlets on, diving this way and that, working up a right old sweat. Thus we wonder if Jonny is playing. Nah, surely not, but then again, has anyone seen Matt Prior? Nope, not for a while. Blimey, what's going on here. Then Tremlett walks by, unsmiling. Then we see Chris Woakes marking out his run. Goodness me. This is so un-England. England are a pragmatic, foot-on-the-throat lot. It's Tremlett for Tim Bresnan, surely, and carry on where they left off in Durham.
At 10.30am the coin mesmerises us before landing, rolling and tumbling in Australia's favour. It is a good day for batting, warm and clear. The pitch is like Weetabix, dry and rough, and in need of milk and sugar if bowlers are to find anything pleasant within. England had planned to play Tremlett but the groundsman mowed late on Tuesday and minds were changed.
Alec Stewart, our man on the inside of all things Surrey, says this an old Oval surface - firm but easy-paced for batsmen and likely to spin in a few days' time. He adds that it is not a two-spinner pitch, that it is nothing like the one for the corresponding match four years ago. (A proper Bunsen of a thing by the way, one so clearly, obviously and utterly going to turn from the off that Ricky Ponting announced a side without a spinner in sight and Andrew Strauss went for Graeme Swann alone. "Pitches are Iike wives," Len Hutton said in Brisbane nearly 60 years ago. "You never quite know how they will turn out." Ricky might agree. His team were hammered. So was Len's.)
Michael Clarke comes over for his interview. He is narrow-eyed, not the usual chatty man, and guarded. He tells us that James Faulkner is getting a go and that Watson has played most of his career at the top of the order. He looks sick of being Everyman and might have taken a leaf out of Allan Border's book, which is to say buckle down the hatches and give 'em nothing. We have gone soft, time to toughen up.
Alastair Cook follows him to our camera position. He says it might be a good toss to have won before confirming that Kerrigan and Woakes are playing because "it is the most attacking option". Tell us more, captain. Well, we think it is the right balance of team for the pitch, he says. He fidgets a little while saying it. He admits he has not seen much of Kerrigan himself but adds that it is exciting to have a couple of players making their debut.
The thinking is that if two spinners play, there is a risk in starting with only two seamers. So Woakes is in team instead of Bairstow. Talk about a gloved-up diversion by Jonny boy. The media feed from this sort of stuff, from an angle that gives us an edge. Forget Bairstow, the angles are everywhere: 1) the ongoing pursuit of a real-deal allrounder by England; 2) the sleeper who has stepped into Monty Panesar's rather soiled shoes; 3) Watson and the leg-before-wicket fable, not. Then there is 4-0, James Anderson hunting down Bob Willis and Ian Botham, Ian Bell's search for an extraordinary fourth series hundred, Faulkner's sudden opportunity, etc.
Kerrigan, the sleeper, had a nightmare. He could not land it. Poor fellow seemed terrified. A couple of days ago, after hearing of his selection, he said his phone had gone into meltdown. Oops, best say nothing. Imagine it tonight because today he bowled left-arm spin without using his right side and paid the price of embarrassment. There must be something wrong, this cannot be the chap the selectors chose. If it is, well, let's not go there. Panesar is presently playing for Essex, his new county after Sussex swung the axe. He has bowled a heap overs without riches in return. But that is better than the salt mines. If he saw any of what happened at The Oval, he might reckon on a trip to Australia this winter. Or maybe Kerrigan will find himself next time around. That is the best thing about cricket, you get another go.
Woakes was okay, honest you might say. He has quickened since his last one-day international appearance and tried to bowl gun-barrel straight, which he pretty much did but mainly in the wrong way, ie. no swing or seam movement. He is a good cricketer, no doubt. Between them, the blokes on debut bowled 23 overs without a wicket and conceded 105 runs. Woakes was the more economical of the two.
Bell did not bat. Faulkner did not appear.
Anderson cruised bast "Big Bob" and now has only Ian "Beefy" Botham to pass before becoming the highest wicket-taker in England's history. This is some effort. He is a wonderful bowler to watch, a whippet of a thing who can move a cricket ball while still retaining its control like few others, ever. He fields like a god and has saved Test matches against mighty opponents with his bat. Anderson is a special one.
But 4-0 will be a remarkable achievement, given what we saw today. A slow, easy- paced pitch as predicted by Stewart, and some Aussies with the bit between their teeth.
Watson was nearly lbw early in the piece. Lucky boy survived. Watson was hit on that front pad a lot but the lucky boy survived. If he could remove his wretched left leg from the line of the stumps or, at worst, stop playing around it, there would not be a problem. The rest of Watson's batting is very, very good. After more work on the problem during the past week and a bloody-minded approach to this innings, "Watto" played the game to his potential.
And that will be the abiding memory of a day that began with so many questions and finished with the salvation of one man. If Watson cannot kick on from here, the doubting classes will have been proved right but surely now, at this time of celebration, he can unravel the mysteries that have so often confounded him - mysteries of self-belief, consistency, finishing the job, injury and mental state. He sparkled for 176 runs of his own out of 289 scored by the time he was out, in an Ashes Test match against three outstanding bowlers. That is all the evidence he, or anyone else, requires. For now.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK