Shane Watson of Australia hits the ball towards the boundary during the 2011 ICC World Cup Warm up game between India and Australia at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on February 13, 2011 in Bangalore, India.
Shane Watson of Australia hits the ball towards the boundary during the 2011 ICC World Cup Warm up game between India and Australia at the M. Chinnaswamy Stadium on February 13, 2011 in Bangalore, India. Pictures © Getty Images

 

 

By Nishad Pai Vaidya

 

Australia has had fantastic opening batsmen over the years like Geoff Marsh, David Boon, Mark Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Mathew Hayden, to name a few. Shane Watson is the latest addition to the rich legacy.

 

Watson made his ODI debut for Australia on the 2002 tour to South Africa. His athleticism and all-round ability caught everybody’s eye. He was a fast bowling all- rounder who batted in the lower middle-order. In his first year in international cricket, he featured in most of the ODIs Australia played. He was picked for the 2003 World Cup, but had to pull out due to an injury and was replaced by Ian Harvey.

 

Injuries were big hurdles early in Watson’s international career. He looked fit and athletic, but would get sidelined by frequent niggles. It was frustrating not just for him but even cricket lovers to see a talented player get injured on a regular basis. This robbed him of various opportunities to showcase his talent at the international level. Until the year 2008, he was in and out of the side mainly due the injuries. Nobody doubted his talent; doubts, if any, were about his fitness. He was a part of the Australian squad that lifted the World Cup in the year 2007, but couldn’t find a place in the side for a year after that due to fitness concerns.

 

The tournament that changed Watson’s career was the first edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2008. Watson was the Player of the Tournament as he played a crucial role in helping the Shane Warne– led Rajasthan Royals lift the trophy. He scored 474 runs at an average of 47.20 and picked up 17 scalps.

 

This fantastic all round performance fast tracked his comeback to the Australian team. He was picked for the limited overs leg of Australia’s tour to West Indies in June 2008. He was asked to open the batting, and he answered the call by scoring a brilliant 126 in the third ODI. This established him at the top of the order. He hasn’t looked back since.

 

He was first tried as an opener in the year 2006 but couldn’t continue for long due to the presence of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden. The glimpses of his ability at the top were visible even then, but it was only during the West Indies tour in 2008 that he made that spot his own.

 

Some players flourish in the one day game after they are given the opportunity to open the batting. What this does is that it gives them the chance to face the new ball; it gives them enough overs to bat and also a chance to express themselves with the fielding restrictions on. Sachin Tendulkar, Sanath Jayasuriya and Tillekaratne Dilshan are a few examples.

 

When asked by Rameez Raja during the post-match presentation after his record breaking knock of 185 (off 95 balls) against Bangladesh whether opening the batting had made him a better player, Watson answered in the affirmative and said that it is because opening the batting allowed him more time in the middle and the opportunity to face some of the best new ball bowlers.

 

What strikes most about him opening the batting is his ability to get big scores at a very brisk rate. Earlier this year he stroked a magnificent 161 to lead Australia to victory against England at Melbourne. His hundreds in the Champions Trophy 2009 semi-final and final were probably his best knocks at the highest level.

 

Watson wasn’t a regular in Test matches since his debut in January 2005, but during Ashes 2009 in England he was asked to open and he responded very well. He carried that consistency into the summer that followed and was one of the highest run scorers for Australia in the season. He thus cemented his place in Tests as well.

 

His bowling is also a valuable asset to any team. Pace and accuracy are the main features of his bowling. Usually, he acts as a support to Mitchell Johnson and Brett Lee, but has the ability to pick up wickets and reduce the pressure on the frontline bowlers. His style of bowling is more suited to the limited-overs versions of the game as the records suggest, but he can be useful in Test matches as well.

 

During the course of the last two years we have seen Watson evolve into one of the best players in the world. He has been fantastic in all the three formats of the game. Luckily the injuries have stayed away and we have witnessed the early promise being fulfilled. One just hopes that this run would continue and he produces many more stellar performances in the future. Who would have imagined a fast bowling all-rounder playing some of the best knocks opening the batting!

 

(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.”)