"The intimidating factor. He is a big dude and knows how to get in people's face. So, he will make the most of that skillset." That's what Shane Watson said of WWE superstar John Cena when the two had a hit at the Sydney Thunder nets in 2017. Watson might have well been describing himself.
The Australian is strongly built and, back in the day, used to intimidate bowlers with his mere presence at the crease. He relishes being in the middle of a fierce battle and doesn't shy away from firing some verbal volleys. Remember Watson v Wahab Riaz at the 2015 World Cup?
Fast-forward to 2019. Watson intimidated attacks in the Big Bash League and then the Pakistan Super League earlier this year, but struggled to get the ball away on the slower tracks in the Indian Premier League. The critics were sharpening their knives and raising questions about Watson's place in Chennai Super Kings' XI. Watson's horror run at the top - he had laboured to 147 runs in ten innings at a strike rate of 112.21 before Tuesday - created a domino effect, ramping up the pressure on MS Dhoni and Ambati Rayudu in the middle order.
On Tuesday, Watson was the first to enter the field, by 6pm, and he inspected the pitch. It wouldn't play too many tricks - like it had done in the previous four games this season - but Watson pulled off one trick after another. And he did so against Rashid Khan, perhaps the best T20 spinner in the world right now.
Sunrisers Hyderabad captain Bhuvneshwar Kumar teased Watson with swing and bounce in the early exchanges. Watson played and missed, and played out a maiden in the first over. Suresh Raina then found his groove with five boundaries in an over off Sandeep Sharma.
Super Kings were 58 for 1 in seven overs in pursuit of 176. Enter Rashid. Watson quietly inside-edged that first ball that drifted into the leg side. He then exploded like a volcano blowing its lid. Rashid pushed one through full and outside off, and Watson deployed a signature giant stride and bludgeoned the ball straight back to the legspinner. Rashid got his fingertip to the ball, but the power of the shot was such that it still skedaddled away to the straight boundary, perfectly bisecting long-on and long-off.
Rashid's ego was hurt, and a little shoulder brush between him and Watson lit a fuse at Chepauk. Rashid threw a death stare at Watson. Watson returned the favour. Perhaps, for the first time this season, the Chennai crowd went "Watto! Watto! Watto!"
Rashid drew another inside-edge with his third ball, but the fourth was deftly glided past slip for four. In the next over, Watson was dropped by Jonny Bairstow diving to his right. You need a slice of luck when you're going through a prolonged lean patch.
For me to miss out on not scoring runs for long as I had throughout the tournament if I had been in a previous team I would have been dropped a long time ago
Rashid struck back by removing Raina in his second over for 38 off 24 balls. Sandeep then replaced Rashid, and was taken for three boundaries in the 12th over. Yet, 67 off 42 balls was still a fairly tough ask against a side that has Rashid and Bhuvneshwar in its ranks.
Rashid returned and bowled a flat, skiddy wrong'un that fizzed off the Chepauk pitch. Watson seemingly picked the variation, went so very deep in the crease, opened up his hips, and swept it hard and flat with the turn to the square-leg boundary. Rashid lost his length and his head. The next ball was a full-toss on middle and leg, and this time Watson stretched out to muscle it away over midwicket for six.
Whenever Rashid speared one and got it to skid off the pitch, Watson got right back and let his hips generate the power to drill the ball through the leg side. Whenever Rashid tossed it up, Watson was right forward to the pitch of the ball. All told, Watson shellacked 30 off 13 balls from Rashid and all but sealed Super Kings' spot in the playoffs.
Fun fact: Watson is the only batsman who has faced 40-plus balls from Rashid in T20 cricket without being dismissed.
"He's a very skillful bowler," Watson said of Rashid afterwards. "And he's very competitive, which is what I am. I really enjoy the contest - that's part of the love of the game I have for cricket. It's that contest. It's that battle and he's one of the world's best spinners, especially in T20 cricket we play against each other. I was able to get on top of him tonight, but with the skill he has it's not always going to be that way."
After smashing Rashid around, Watson had to deal with Bhuvneshwar. The Sunrisers captain nailed an inch-perfect yorker on off stump, but Watson collapsed his back leg and jabbed it away with an open face between backward point and short third man. Watson married brawn with brains during his 96 off 53 balls and swamped Sunrisers.
Another team management might have dropped Watson after such meagre returns, but Stephen Fleming and Dhoni aren't as successful as they are without reason. They back their players and don't make them feel insecure about their places at all.
"Just about every other team I've been in… for me to miss out on not scoring runs for long as I had throughout the tournament if I had been in a previous team I would have been dropped a long time ago," Watson said with a laugh. "So, for Stephen Fleming and MS Dhoni in particular to keep the faith in me and knowing that I had a really good innings in me it was great.
"For me personally, knowing that I had come off from the PSL and coming into this I was flying high and then things didn't go my way. I lost a bit of rhythm in my batting. So, for them to keep faith in me I really appreciate it."
And Watson repaid Super Kings' faith with a typically intimidating innings. The big slog-sweep was back, as was big smile on Watson's face. The night ended with Watson blowing kisses to his kids in the stands and making the Chepauk crowd go: awww.