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Watson’s best gives Australia advantage

Australia ends first day at 307 for 4 after Watson hits career-high 176

Watson’s best gives Australia advantage - Cricket News
Shane Watson anchored Australia's innings and scored a dominant 176.

Shane Watson walked his personal road of redemption, and escorted the Australian team along the first stage of its own revitalisation, as he defied both his record of 48 innings without a century and a Stuart Broad bouncer to the head to register his highest Test score of 176, taking his side to 307 for 4 on the first day of the fifth Ashes Test at The Oval on Wednesday(August 21).

Listed at first wicket down to fill the role of the omitted Usman Khawaja, Watson came to the crease in the fifth over of the day, and didn’t depart until 17 balls before stumps. In between, he seemingly banished from mind both his team’s miserable series and his own with the bat, mocked for his umpire reviews and tendency to fall lbw.  

Watson was last on the ground on Monday’s centre-wicket practice session, a solitary figure taking close-range throwdowns long after his far more casual teammates had finished kicking a Sherrin and sauntered off. That concentration and durability persisted today, the broad-shouldered Australian becoming an immovable object as he clouted a century in boundaries alone, with 25 fours and one six in his long-awaited third Test century.

It was, by contrast, a miserable day for England’s two debutants - Simon Kerrigan, the left-arm spinner, and Chris Woakes, the bowling all-rounder. Watson was especially harsh on Kerrigan, just as he had been in the tour match at Northampton. There, after batting out a maiden first up, he faced 23 balls for seven fours, a six and two singles. Here, he welcomed Kerrigan to the crease with 27 runs from 11 balls.

The spinner was dragged for the next 31 overs, came back to bowl two more for 10 runs, including a head-high full toss. At that point he was threatening to emulate Bryce McGain, with none for 38 from four overs. Woakes’ analysis was less dire but his bowling was no more threatening, garnering only a late lbw call that was overturned on review to leave him with none for 52 from 15.

It had all started tightly enough after Australia elected to bat, on a pitch that looked like it would suit the team after some tricky overs with the new ball. Stuart Broad and James Anderson responded with a testing early bowling partnership, with four overs containing edges, misses, and a very tight lbw shout against Chris Rogers. Two balls after David Warner inside-edged a boundary, he nicked one outside off to Matt Prior, giving Anderson just his fifth top-order wicket of the series.

With that, Rogers and Watson dug in for ten watchful overs, including another close shout against Watson that England again declined to review. From there, only Rogers remained dug. Watson took flight.

Woakes was dispatched for three boundaries in his third over, through cover, third man and midwicket. A straight drive four overs later yielded the loudest crack of the summer, before Watson rather reached for one to scoop Graeme Swann over long-on for six. Soon after that, he went to a half century with a single from Kerrigan’s first ball in Test cricket, and from there the outright assault began.

The two went to lunch with the score at 112 for 1, having just raised a hundred partnership of which Watson had contributed 80. The afternoon session started slowly. Rogers’ eventual 23 from 100 balls was not the stuff of legend, more the kind of innings his predecessor Ed Cowan produced, but like Cowan’s, contributions that see off a morning session and a new ball can be underrated. Still, when Rogers prodded Swann to slip, falling to the offspinner for the sixth time in nine innings this series, the ever-familiar Australian collapse threatened.

Having moved into the 90s, Watson was struck high on the neck by a ball that bounced viciously from Broad’s high action. At first it looked very ugly, the batsman collapsing to the ground, but he received his biggest round of applause this summer after electing to carry on. With the mainstay still clearing his vision, Michael Clarke departed via a wicked Anderson delivery swerving back into him to bowl him off his pad, and every Australian in the ground was very conscious that Brad Haddin was padded up to come in next.

But Watson shrugged his injury aside to reach his hundred with far less fuss than any previous such milestone, surviving his first real chance shortly thereafter when dropped by Alistair Cook at slip. From there, he received quiet and dedicated support from Steve Smith, the one-time legspinner showing the stickability and determination that would have been antonymous to his name any time before Mohali 2013.

At one stage, not long after tea, Watson had scored 123 of the team’s 186 runs, a rate of 66.12 percent that threatened Charlie Bannerman’s mark from the very first Test match. But Smith worked his way into the game, punishing some drab bowling from Woakes to raise a 50 partnership from 121 balls, before Watson raised Australia’s 200 with a thumping pull from Swann through midwicket.

As the shadows lengthened, Watson remained just as commanding, smacking Swann through midwicket to top his previous high score, then pulling Broad to the midwicket fence and whipping him to fine-leg to cross 150 for the first time.

It was clearly Watson’s day. On 160, he even successfully challenged an lbw decision against him, Hawk-Eye deeming the ball would have bounced high after Woakes thought he had his first Test wicket. Eventually, the Australian’s run ended after he savagely pulled a Stuart Broad bouncer, only to be brought down by a superb diving catch from Kevin Pietersen at deep backward square.

Nonetheless, Watson had broken the mental shackles, and convinced himself that he can still deliver at the top level. Smith carried the side through to stumps to finish on 66 not out, his third half-century of the series, while Peter Siddle unveiled his own take on the nightwatchman’s role by collecting 18 from 15 balls.

Watson has done most of the heavy lifting, both for his side and of the weight off his own shoulders. Tomorrow, with their shortened batting order, it remains to be seen whether Australia can press home its advantage. So far this series, this is what it has failed to do. But its former vice-captain has just demonstrated how to turn previous form around.

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