Watson returns to bowling crease
Shane Watson considers himself a strong chance of resuming at the bowling crease during the first Ashes Test, the major question a matter of when. In the latter phase of his recovery from a hamstring strain, Watson took his first tentative steps towards bowling at Allan Border Field on Monday, and will build up further as the Test creeps closer to the toss on Thursday morning.
Watson told ESPNcricinfo he was keen to bowl in the critical first encounter of a series in which he will hope to play a pivotal role with bat and ball, but was also enjoying the fact he was not under pressure to be fit to bowl on the first morning of the match, in contrast to last summer when he was left out of the team to face South Africa for two Tests on the basis that he needed to bowl to earn his place.
"It was nice to be able to roll my arm over and see how I pull up tomorrow, which I'm sure will be okay, and just gradually building it up to see what capacity I'll be at for the Test match," Watson said. "Potentially absolutely [I will bowl in the Test], the great thing is the pressure's not on me to make sure I'm pushing to bowl on day one if we bowl.
"It will just depend on how I continue to go over the next few days and get a gauge on what capacity I'll be able to play. Everything's progressing really well at the moment, but I'm not putting a huge expectation on me being able to bowl a huge amount in the first innings, it is more seeing how it progresses to get the balance right between getting as close to full capacity as I can without heightening the risk of re-injury."
Australia's physio Alex Kountouris had opened the possibility of the allrounder being able to reach his top gear at some point during the match. While Watson's bowling was decidedly gentle, off a handful of steps, the sight of his return to the crease re-opened the hosts' selection options for Brisbane as they ponder the inclusion of Nathan Lyon or James Faulkner.
The hamstring strain occurred during the final match of the recent ODI series in India when Watson was moving into his delivery stride at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore. Watson said he was not inconvenienced by batting or running, leaving only the motion of bowling his fast medium swing and seam to be negotiated at training.
"Doing running between the wickets has been absolutely fine so far, it's mainly just the bowling aspect, how I initially hurt it, which is trying to get that perfect balance," Watson said. "If I'm not feeling it batting-wise like I did during that last one-dayer then I'm certainly confident it won't get hurt batting."
Kountouris, who has groaned and grimaced as much as anyone over Watson's litany of calf and hamstring ailments in recent years, offered an optimistic view of his recovery, noting that the fact he had been bowling consistently until suffering the strain meant less strength and conditioning work would be required to get him up to speed. This contrasted with the bowling coach Craig McDermott's view that a return in Brisbane would be unlikely, leaving Watson and his captain Michael Clarke to consider their options.
"The thing is he's only stopped bowling two weeks ago," Kountouris said. "He could just as easily have had a rest for 10 days and then come back to bowling so we're not too worried about building him up with workloads. He's going well with his rehab, he's on track to play the game obviously, he was running today, he's been running since last week. He did a little bit of bowling today so that's in the infancy but he's going well at the moment.
"He's on track to be bowling in the next week so which means he might bowl in this Test match if he keeps making good progress. He hasn't had a long-term injury, so getting him up and going again is the most important thing and really he's just got to get through a couple of sessions and then he can bowl some balls in the game. Probably not going to bowl 40 overs, but he can bowl some balls."
Watson's fitness to bowl has implications for plenty of players around him in the Gabba squad. If he is unable to fulfil the duties of the fourth seamer the position of Lyon comes under increasing threat, given the likelihood of a grassy surface due to recent heavy rain around Brisbane and the presence of Steven Smith and Clarke as potential part-time spinners.
However, a clean bill of bowling health would permit Clarke to employ Watson in the linking spells he delivered so usefully in England, allowing the pace vanguard of Ryan Harris, Peter Siddle and Mitchell Johnson some respite while allowing greater latitude for Lyon's flighted offbreaks.
"I was batting at the time but I heard he bowled and they came out well so everything's okay," Smith said. "Hopefully he pulls up well tomorrow and can do a bit more because he's certainly going to be valuable if we can get 10 overs out of him in an innings at the Gabba. He was invaluable in England and if he do that again here it will be great for us."
Lyon possesses a fine record in the two Tests he has played in Brisbane, scooping 11 wickets at an average of 24.09 across matches against New Zealand and South Africa. Typically team-oriented, Lyon said he would be happy to bowl tightly on a surface more favourable to fast bowlers.
"That's going to have to come down to the conditions," Lyon said. "If it's turning a lot I'll be more attacking, but if it's not turning as much and if it's seaming I might be thrown the ball to do a containing and holding role so we can rotate our fast men from the other end and try to create some pressure. That's going to be game-dependent, and talking to Pup (Clarke) when and if that circumstance arises.
"I'm happy to do whatever role it takes for Australia to win a Test match. I'm all for the team, I don't care who's taking the wickets. If Ryan Harris takes five and six wickets, I take none for the game and we win the Test match I'm over the moon. I'm happy with whatever role Michael Clarke comes up with and hopefully I'll be able to take that and help get wickets from both ends."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here