Shane Watson essayed a wonderful knock of 176 against England on Day One of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval. His innings was welcomed and was a much needed one for himself and Australia. Shrikant Shankar explains why Watson’s big century merits the utmost acclaim and how it could affect the mindset of the Australian players, especially going into the return Ashes later this year.
It was a flat track at The Oval and the toss would be crucial as is ever in any five-day match. Michael Clarke called right for the second time in the ongoing Ashes series and without any hesitation decided to bat first, exactly as he did in Manchester. That time, it was Clarke himself who imposed on the English bowlers with a brilliant 187. This time, it was Shane Watson who did the same with a more authoritative 176 on Day One of the fifth Ashes 2013 Test. He was dismissed with just a few overs left in the day, but that one innings has effectively put Australia in control of the match.
Australia lost David Warner (6) very early and Chris Rogers seemed happy to just play out deliveries without scoring many runs. He scored 23 off 100 balls — even in Test cricket that is very slow. Clarke himself looked very uncomfortable, especially against Stuart Broad who has gotten his number five times this series. So the wicket was flat and three batsmen who have been amongst the runs in the last two Tests struggled, or got out early, or both. Watson got a 68 in the first innings of the fourth Test at Chester-le-Street, but that was far from convincing. And that is why his innings on Wednesday must be commended on many different levels.
First and foremost, Watson has had major issues with his technique in this series. He has got out leg-before on four occasions so far and looked to get his front foot far across the line of the ball. But on Wednesday, he played a lot straighter albeit more towards the leg-side. He was promoted to No 3 in the line-up and right from the beginning he meant business. Watson could have been out a few times early on, but somehow managed to survive and at the same time score freely. Once he reached the thirties, there was no stopping him.
England handed Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan debuts and Watson gleefully dispatched the duo early on. Right-arm pacer Woakes bowled short and overly full, but Australia’s former vice-captain pulled and drove with conviction. Left-arm spinner Kerrigan was taken apart in his first spell as he gave away 28 runs in only two overs. The second one of those cost 18 runs with Watson cracking four fours. And it was there that the momentum completely shifted in Australia’s favour. England captain Alastair Cook was forced to bowl his three experienced bowlers — James Anderson, Broad and Graeme Swann —more often than he would have liked.
Watson blazed away to 80 from 77 balls at lunch. After the interval, the England bowlers bowled a more disciplined line and stemmed the flow of runs. Watson played a completely different innings to the one he had just played before lunch. He looked more cautious and was happy to get his runs in ones and twos. Once Watson got to his third Test century in 46 matches, he acknowledged the crowd’s applause. This was also his first Ashes ton. At tea, Watson reached 121 in 157 balls — a huge change in batting pace. When the last session started, Watson along with Steven Smith took charge of the innings and put Australia in a more dominant position.
Woakes bowled much better in his later spells and Kerrigan was not taken to the cleaners, but it was not enough as the runs came flowing from Watson’s bat. He raced to his 150 with a flurry of fours of Broad. As the close of play loomed, there seemed no way England would get Watson’s number. The new ball was taken and still Watson and Smith got the boundaries at will. Smith reached his sixth half-century in an entertaining and calculated knock.
With just two overs left in the day, Watson finally departed. He hooked a Broad bouncer hard and flat towards deep backward square-leg. Kevin Pietersen took a phenomenal catch diving to his left to end a scintillating innings. He scored 176 from 247 balls, hitting 25 fours and a six. Watson got a thunderous response from the fans, English and Australian alike, as he walked back to the dressing room. Australia closed play at 307 for four with a strong lower-order and tail to come.
To think about it, Watson was under enormous pressure coming into the match. He was hardly bowling and he did not score enough runs. His place in the squad, let alone in the starting XI, was under threat for the return Ashes Down Under. With this innings, he has certainly booked a starting berth for the Gabba Test. This was not just any innings which came along every once in a while. Watson showed that he could take the game to the opposition in the first session, then slow down to preserve his concentration and energy in the second session and then accelerate in the third session. This is what Test cricket is all about and this is why he deserves the utmost praise.
He would certainly be disappointed to lose his wicket at a crucial juncture in the innings, but the damage was already done. A close look at Watson’s batting displays in various positions suggests that he likes batting higher up the order, so, the promotion worked. Although he did struggle as an opener previously in the series, but what this innings has done is that Australia have found a No 3 that also makes Clarke remain at his preferred No 4.
Two very important incidents in the game also must not be forgotten. Watson got struck just behind the left ear by a Broad bouncer. It took several minutes of treatment for him to get up and resume his innings. This was before he reached his ton. It showed that Watson has guts and a lot of courage to play the way he did after the bump on the head. Then once on 104, he was dropped by Cook at wide first slip. Anderson’s good length delivery took the outside edge of Watson’s bat and went to Cook, who could not hold onto the catch low to his right. What could have been if the England captain had caught the catch is now irrelevant as a lot more happened after that.
The Ashes and the series is lost, but if Australia can win this match it could change the mentality of the players as they enter the 2013-14 series. Not everyone can play an innings like the one Watson played, but the attitude was right and it wasn’t a fluke. It took Watson 25 Tests and 48 innings to score his third century, but the manner in which he went about during the innings bodes well for him and Australia. If Australia reach a total beyond 450, they would be in the driving seat in the match and they would have Watson to thank for it.
(Shrikant Shankarpreviously worked with Mobile ESPN, where he did audio commentary for many matches involving India, Indian Premier League and Champions League Twenty20. He has also written many articles involving other sports for ESPNSTAR.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Shrikant_23)