Oval Test, Day One — This has been a troubled Ashes for Shane Watson. But things got a lot better on the first day of the Oval Test. What began in the morning as an exercise in rehabilitation had been transformed by the end of the day into an elegant and unexpected celebration of his best batting performance in his eight years as an Australian Test player. From rehab to apotheosis in the 81 overs he had spent at the crease.
His best Test score had been 126, one of only two hundreds in 83 Tests. Now his top score is 176. He was out just before the close, having scored 57 per cent of the runs in Australia’s 307 for 4. He played the leading part in hundred partnerships with Chris Rogers and Steve Smith, and Australia is in the same strong position as it was after the first day at Old Trafford, where it built a platform for a remarkable victory that was washed away in Manchester’s wet weather.
This was another rewarding day. It started well when Michael Clarke won the toss on a sunny morning when the wicket was easy, and looked more promising when England’s selectors astonished everyone – perhaps even themselves. Two uncapped bowlers were chosen in a five-man attack. It was a risky decision that did not come off. Watson feasted off both of them.
At the start of the series Watson had laid claim to open the innings; Darren Lehmann, in one of his first decisions as coach, let him have his way. After managing on 146 runs in the first three Tests, Watson was moved down the order to number six, where he scored a useful 68. But Lehmann’s real problem was at number three, where all his selections had misfired. Usman Khawaja was to go. Watson was the only alternative.
He had come in in the sixth over when David Warner edged a seaming ball from James Anderson to Matt Prior, and he imposed himself right away. Unusually, his bat was straight; he drove cleanly in front of the wicket and opened the face to glide the ball to third man. His default expression is unsmiling, but it certainly looked as if he was enjoying himself.
Only once did he repeat the fatal error of earlier innings by playing across the ball and being given lbw. An appeal for lbw was rejected by the umpire; England, thinking the ball might have gone down leg side, decided not review the decision. In fact, Hawk-eye showed the ball clipping the leg stump. (He would not have been given lbw because there were insufficient grounds for reversing the umpire’s decision.)
Clearly, Watson was in form and in luck. His partnership with Chris Rogers prospered when England’s debutantes were introduced to Test cricket and found themselves victims of an experimental attack that sacrificed a batsman (Jonny Bairstow) for Simon Kerrigan, a left-arm spinner from Lancashire, and replaced the injured Tim Bresnan with Chris Woakes.
Kerrigan takes three diffident steps to the crease, and the most striking thing about his bowling is a set of inviting full tosses and dreadful short deliveries. Presumably he was experiencing a bad attack of stage fright. He will not wish to remember the day, but he won’t be able to forget it. Between them, they conceded 108 of Australia’s 307 runs in only 23 overs.
Watson scored 80 of the first 100 runs he put on with Rogers, who had been playing circumspectly. When he was out before lunch after putting on 107 with Watson, he had scored only 23, having been most helpful just by being there. Watson slowed down in his own nervous 90s, and survived a fearsome blow to the head just below his left ear that felled him when he was on 91. But he hit a succession of singles into wide open spaces, and reached 100 off only 119 balls.
A patient in rehab deserves a big slice of luck and Watson had his when he was 104. A thick edge went towards Alastair Cook and first slip. It was to his left but he got his hands to it and should have held it, but he didn’t. Australia were 151 for 3 at the time, Clarke having scratched around looking uncomfortable for 39 balls before Anderson aced him again with a ball that removed the off-stump bail.
A fourth wicket did not fall until three overs before close of play, when Watson hooked hard towards long leg where Kevin Pietersen followed its path and was able to clutch as he dived to his left. It was a splendid catch to end an innings which Watson had coloured purple. He had justified his own high opinion of himself.
The leaders of England’s attack were not toothless. Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann have each been the match winners in three Tests; at The Oval they got little help from the wicket, but they persevered. Broad was unable to repeat his heroics at Chester-le-Street, but he did get Watson’s wicket.
Broad also got an earful of abuse from Lehmann who reacted ferociously to Broad’s explanation of why he did not walk when he edged a catch at a vital moment at Trent Bridge. It was “blatant cheating", Lehmann charged. He added that he hopes the Australian public will give it to him in the return series in the summer. “I hope it makes him cry and he goes home.” It seems unlikely. Broad plays to win. He doesn’t weep easily.
Stephen Fay is a former editor of Wisden and author of books about the Bank of England and the collapse of Barings.