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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on August 24, 2013, 9:10 GMT

    Incredible comments! If KP had blasted that innings we'd never hear the end of it. Apart from being good for Watto on a personal level and important for Australia, it was a brilliantly entertaining performance which was good for the crowd and the game of cricket. So he pulverised debutantes, he faced experienced bowlers as well. Don't remember reading much criticism of Bell while he's been plundering runs throughout the series from a less-than-amazing Aussie attack. If Watson's an 'average' player, let's hear it for mediocrity, as it's clearly being undervalued. It was a superb and exciting innings by a hugely talented player. By contrast, Joe Root was lauded to the heavens for plodding towards a century in a match which was already in England's favour. Even though I support England, as a cricket fan I know who I'd prefer to watch.

  • Scott on August 24, 2013, 7:32 GMT

    In 2 years time the selectors will be saying... "We know he hasn't scored a century in the last 40 innings, but we know he can do it-- that 170 in England was fabulous, wasn't it?"

  • Dummy4 on August 24, 2013, 2:40 GMT

    The one I have sympathy for is Hughes. In 2009, he was dropped and an underperforming Mike Hissey was retained. He too came back with a century when it didn't matter. This series, Hughes was dropped to allow an out of form Watson to remain in the team and like Hussey he got a century in the dead rubber5 game.

  • Eden on August 23, 2013, 5:43 GMT

    Great article spot on. Hughes and Khawaja probably would have benefited from having a bat in this game anyways go Aussie

  • Dummy4 on August 22, 2013, 15:37 GMT

    A very beautiful and symphonic article.

  • Bob on August 22, 2013, 12:33 GMT

    Well I watched most of his innings..and it just happened to be his day.. A lot of his runs came off the two debutants, who hardly set the world alight. Any batsman worth his salt would have got those runs on that wicket with that bowling., particularly since the result means nothing more than perhaps a face-saving exercise for Australia...I want to see him do it when the chips are down.. which so far in this series he has failed to do. . This may be a turning point in Watson's career, but so was the last time he got a test hundred in 2011. How desparate does it make Aussie cricket look that they have persisted with a batsman whose average over the last two or more years is less than 25,

  • Basil on August 22, 2013, 10:53 GMT

    @Eric Smith, last time I checked Anderson, Broad, and Swann were playing in this game. I have not seen anyone receive so much criticism for scoring a large hundred. Whats wrong with people? Look at the series stats people, and you'll see that Bell is the only batsman this series who has consistently batted well. He, this series, is the difference between the two teams.

  • Dummy4 on August 22, 2013, 9:24 GMT

    Watson is an ordinary player. he has reached his full potential there is not much there. he will now average about 15 in the next 6 innings. the question is, is that enough to warrant a place in the aussie side. unfortunately yes. hughes is terrible

  • Naveed on August 22, 2013, 9:19 GMT

    he's playing for his place, as are many australian players. lucky to be in the team, maybe, but, now he's got something to build on for the home series. good to watch and hopefully more to come.

  • Shakti on August 22, 2013, 8:49 GMT

    The most important question is whether Michael Clarke is turning into Suresh Raina,its disgusting the way the short ball troubled him on a flat surface.Atlest Raina got embarassed on some real green wickets in 2011.

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