England v Australia, 5th Investec Test, The Oval, 1st day August 21, 2013

Talent frustrated no longer?

Shane Watson's innings was encouraging for Australia but its timing means the questions will remain for now

That Shane Watson was talented enough to play an innings like this was never in doubt. That he ever would in a Test match was questionable. That he now has in an Ashes battle is encouraging. That he has done so in a dead rubber is frustrating. Talented, questionable, encouraging, frustrating. That is how Watson is, was and, perhaps, ever shall be.

Watson's 176 at The Oval was at once meaningless and consequential. It held no value for Australia's hopes of regaining the urn, which disappeared in the Manchester rain, nor of levelling the series, which fizzled out on a crazy fourth day in Chester-le-Street. But if his innings sets up an Australia victory, it will instil belief in a team lacking it.

Ultimately, Watson will be judged not by this innings but by whether he follows it with important runs in the home Ashes later this year. Barring injury, he will surely begin that series at No. 3, for he is the man responsible for ending Australia's longest ever drought of Test innings without a hundred from first drop.

That he was No.3 at The Oval was an accident, not a masterstroke. First drop through most of last year, No. 4 in India, an opener at the start of this trip, briefly No. 6 in the last Test, at times a batsman only, at others a first-change bowler, Michael Clarke's deputy for two years, Australia's 44th Test captain. He looked like ending this series as the team's minister without portfolio.

Certainly he remains a senior player in the side. On Monday, while the rest of the squad trained at The Oval, coach Darren Lehmann and selector on duty Rod Marsh gathered their leadership group together for a half-hour meeting. Clarke was there with his new deputy Brad Haddin, so were Ryan Harris and Peter Siddle, the leaders of the attack. So was Watson.

"It was more or less about us standing up as senior players and leading from the front," Clarke said of the meeting. "It was a reminder that we continue on and off the field to lead the way. It is more important when things aren't going to plan."

Standing up has not been Watson's strength in the past couple of years. The man who made back-to-back hundreds in the semi-final and final of the 2009 Champions Trophy, the man who was Player of the Tournament at last year's World Twenty20 couldn't score big at Test level. In the past two years he had averaged 24.79, always batting in the top six.

Watson's previous Test century was so long ago - Mohali in 2010 - that Clarke was the only team-mate from that match also playing at The Oval. Simon Katich was excommunicated. Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey have retired. Marcus North fell off the radar. Mitchell Johnson has slid from view. Tim Paine, filling in there for Haddin, seems forgotten. Nathan Hauritz, Ben Hilfenhaus and Doug Bollinger have been dropped.

Watson remained. Of course, Watson offered an important bowling option that made him a curious case; a top six batsman not pulling his weight with the bat but easing the team's burden with the ball. There were useful fifties, innings that teased, but little substance. Clarke made 187 at Old Trafford, Haddin is on the verge of a series wicketkeeping record, Harris and Siddle have both bowled well.

More than any of the other senior men, Watson knew this was a time he had to stand up. Dead rubber or not. It helped that England picked Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan. Both debutants were nervous, both suffered at the hands of Watson. Watson had clubbed Kerrigan in the tour match in Northampton on Saturday and did here again.

"I was expecting Tremlett to play," Watson said after play. "I'm a bit happier not having to face a guy about six-eight bowling balls that are bouncing up into your splice all the time."

England helped Watson, but Watson helped himself. Over the past fortnight he worked on his lbw problem in the nets, with Clarke yelling instructions as the batting coach Michael di Venuto gave throwdowns. Here, he played well against James Anderson and Stuart Broad. It was his day; he even successfully reviewed an lbw decision. It was also the 19th day in a now dead series.

"I'd give anything to have been able to score runs at the start of the series," he said. "It's only consolation more than anything, because the most important time is in the first three Test matches and I wasn't able to do that ... I've certainly been asking myself a lot of different questions over the last five Test matches about where I'm at with my cricket. It's nice that I've been able to put it together but it's not so nice that it's taken so long."

For Watson as much as anyone, it was an encouraging, yet frustrating innings.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

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