Watson’s century gives Australia the upper hand
All-rounder particularly hard on England’s newcomers
Australia’s Shane Watson celebrates his century during day one of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval. Photograph: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
After a day dominated by Australia, and Shane Watson in particular, England might, not without foundation, be accused of hubris. In the buildup to the final Test the talk had been of making history, of an unprecedented 4-0 series win, of setting down a marker for the winter. And to do this they would carry on doing what they do. Instead they cast aside the formula that has brought their success and brought in two debutant bowlers.
A single day is far too early to tell whether the totally unexpected inclusion of a second spinner in Simon Kerrigan and, contingent on that, Chris Woakes, a medium-pacer with some batting credential to shorten what would otherwise be a tail like a rat’s, will prove the right call. But Woakes found it a trial, generally pitching the ball up on a flat pitch to as strong a driver of the ball as Watson, while Kerrigan unfortunately fell apart, conceding 53 from eight overs and was lucky to get away with that. And Australia’s selections were thought to be quirky.
They will resume their innings on the second day having batted their way to a position of strength at 307 for four. Watson, batting with immense power, playing with the full face of the bat and generally keeping his front pad out of the way, justified his move back up the order to No3 by making 176, his third and highest Test century and his first in 47 innings, since that against India in Mohali.
He was not kidding when he said how relieved he was that Tim Bresnan was not playing and, if Darren Lehmann, as some suspect, was giving him one last chance to show his Test class, then in the nick of time, he has taken it. This was an emphatic response, notwithstanding the charitable offerings he received from Woakes and Kerrigan, and he hit 25 fours and a six, although that came from Graeme Swann rather than the hapless Kerrigan. At one time, until he got into the 90s, something of a problem area for him in the past, he was scoring at better than a run a ball, with the distinct possibility of a hundred before lunch.
If, until his spectacular demise as the day was drawing to a close, he was disadvantaged at all, it was rarely. When 91, beaten by Stuart Broad’s pace, he considered and then thought better of a pull shot at a bouncer, turned his head and was hit a nasty blow behind his left ear that left him groggy.
Then, on 104, he edged Anderson to Alastair Cook, a solitary slip, who dropped the relatively modest chance. Finally, when 166 and pulling wearily, he appeared to have given Woakes a maiden wicket when he missed and was deemed lbw. For once his review was justified. The ball was going over the stumps.
He did not dominate without support. There was a second-wicket stand of 107 with Chris Rogers, to which the opener contributed 20 (and 21 in all before he fell yet again to Swann). After Michael Clarke had been hanged, drawn and quartered by Stuart Broad’s bombardment and Jimmy Anderson before succumbing to the latter (Anderson thus moving ahead of Bob Willis as England’s second highest wicket taker), Watson put on 145 for the fourth wicket with Steve Smith.
This stand was ended three overs from the close by a combination of Broad, in his third over with the second new ball, and Kevin Pietersen. Broad’s bouncer was well hooked by Watson, middled indeed, and hit flat towards deep square-leg, where Pietersen, diving to his left, held a wonderful catch. Credit to bowler and captain for moving the fielder squarer beforehand: it would have been out of reach otherwise.
Poor Kerrigan. A bowler is exposed in Test cricket rather more than the second division of the County Championship and he suffered agonies. If consolation there be, it can come in knowing that these were shared by many watching: it really was painful to see Watson clamber into him as voraciously as might someone given a banquet after fasting for Lent.
He could have had a more gentle introduction and, given that Watson had got stuck into an amuse bouche against the same bowler in Northampton last weekend, Cook might have wondered about the wisdom of throwing him in at the time he did. But this is Test cricket. There are what they call hard yards to be done and bowlers are not hidden, especially on the first day of a match. Batsmen look for weakness in temperament as well as technique. The best ones test a new bowler early on to see how he reacts: will he come back well or will he wilt? That remains to be seen.
Neither of his first two spells was pretty, his first two overs conceding 28 runs, and a second spell, as Cook tried to sneak a couple of low-key overs in from him before tea, equally nerve-racking although less costly in part due to a field scattered far and wide, with five men on the boundary. It was a field set for bad bowling, which is hardly encouraging.
But plainly, for a while, Kerrigan was simply pleased to have landed the ball at all and not been punished for it. In his third and what proved final spell he was able to claw back some figures, largely through not having to bowl to Watson.