Shane Watson: Ashes pain is still so raw

Australian hopes to use one-day series which starts tomorrow as platform to regain the urn, he tells Stephen Brenkley

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The Independent Online

From time to time Shane Watson reminds his young and naive colleagues of what matters in their sporting life. It is his fondest desire that they will never have to carry his burden.

"For the guys who have not been involved in some of the Ashes losses, I continue to let them know how much it does hurt to lose to the English," he said yesterday. "It hurts more than any other time because it's such a passionate rivalry. It is a very special thing to be involved in, whether it's an Ashes series or a one-day series in the middle of the English summer."

One of the many abiding images from England's second successive Ashes triumph two winters ago was Watson's appearance in the bowels of the Melbourne Cricket Ground. It was the close of the third day of the fourth Test and Australia, technically speaking, had lost neither the match, the urn, nor the series.

But in a heartfelt, highly personal inquest, Watson conceded that the game was up, that the English – which is how, in the most charming way, he always refers to the old enemy – were on the verge of a grand triumph. The hurt was written all over his face and the pain came from the bottom of his soul.

Watson is that rarest of beings among modern Australian cricketers. He has never appeared on an Ashes-winning side. Two attempts have ended in two failures, in England in 2009 and in Australia in 2010-11. To suggest he has unfinished business is to muse that the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona could do with being completed one day.

The one-day series between England and Australia that starts at Lord's tomorrow is a stand-alone event. The winner wins, the loser loses, and everyone gets on with other more pertinent cricket matches. But anybody who says that it has no bearing on events next summer is kidding nobody.

Australians who have never been here before are learning about playing in conditions and circumstances that are peculiar to England, while the English are learning about players whom they have never come across but who may well be back next year. This has pertinence all right.

"This is going to be a big learning experience," said Watson at Lord's. "It's very different and some guys are going to learn some lessons. No doubt it's a reconnaissance mission for us but it is for the English as well. I have already seen some cameras behind the bowlers' arms. Poor Gemma has been standing behind the sightscreen. They're trying to get some information on the guys they haven't seen before. Both teams are going to do this, to try to find that edge."

The Gemma to whom he referred is Gemma Broad, sister of Stuart and analyst to the England team. She has not exactly been in disguise as she has filmed actions and methods for later dissection but nor has she announced her presence or left a calling card.

Watson is a senior member of the Australian team in all forms of the game now, second perhaps only to Jacques Kallis of South Africa as an all-rounder in the world. Some would have him narrowly ahead on present contributions but such judgements hardly matter. They are both top-notch.

For the blond, muscular Australian from Ipswich in Queensland, it took its time to happen. He was an early rising star, a shot-making batsman and a quick bowler who was thrust into the spotlight and the Australian squad at 20 in 2001, at a time when they were still lords of all they surveyed.

Who knows what Watson might have achieved then if it had all gone as planned? But his body protested. Stress fractures, deficient hamstrings and other less chronic niggles plagued him for years. A glittering career was not so much stop-start as confined to the physiotherapists' couch. It would have been easy to give up on him.

"There is no doubt that I know how lucky I am to have been able to realise some of the goals and dreams that I had as a young kid," he said. "There was a time when it looked as though it certainly wasn't going to happen.

"I am fundamentally the same man, more comfortable with myself on and off the field but more especially on the field, which is where people see you most. I have certainly matured from being a young, angry, aggressive cricketer to now being much more content. I still like the challenge but it's about evolving and I had to evolve.

"I still have the same morals, stayed true to myself. I was a perfectionist, I used to get angry with myself all the time because I couldn't get it right. It took me quite a time to realise. I over-trained because I was so obsessed with wanting to get the best out of myself that I flogged myself too much. Whereas now, although you still seek improvement, I realise it's not going to happen all day every day."

After all the setbacks, Watson, if he was ever going to make it big in the big time, deserved a break. It came in England in the summer of 2009. By that time he was more or less a fixture in the one-day side but, though he had played in the World Cup- winning side in the West Indies, there was still something of an unfulfilled, nay a hidden talent. At Test level he was peripheral, an all-rounder in the sense that he batted and bowled but had never truly shown that he could do either with the early dash that had seemed to be his lot.

During the Ashes that season, Australia suddenly found themselves in emergency need of an opening batsman, when Phillip Hughes' flaws were brutally exposed. Watson was asked temporarily to fill the breach.

"In your career you always hope you get an opportunity but you also hope that when you get the opportunity you know you're ready to take it," he said. "Physically and technically, that is. I was lucky at that stage, I had just made a few adjustments to my technique to tighten up my batting a little bit.

"If it had happened a year earlier I wouldn't have been ready. That opportunity was the catalyst for me to play consistently for Australia. There is no doubt that developing mental strength has been a big part as well as knowing your game inside out. Some people don't necessarily enjoy that side of it."

From being someone on the fringe, Watson has emerged as a fearsome combatant. When he sustained a calf injury which kept him out for most of the last Australian summer – and he knows now never to come back too soon whatever is at stake – his were big boots to fill. His batting against the new ball is never elegant but its studious determination does not show much frailty. As a bowler in the early days, he went for pace, but he has learnt over the years that it is movement that counts. With Watson you always know you have been in a game.

His ambition, his intention, is to play for Australia in the next two Ashes series in 2013 and 2013-14. In truth, it is what all current England and Australia cricketers are aspiring to and dreaming of. But for now they have the one-day series, in which, of course, those dreams can be forged.

Only a few Australians, who were fulfilling interview engagements, came to Lord's yesterday, but to a man they were touched to be there. Watson was entranced.

"Over the last three or four years I have been able to play consistently against the best players in the world and that's what you want to do to see what you're made of," he said. "I have never taken it for granted especially because it looked as though it wasn't going to happen. The prospect of playing England at Lord's is really something.

"The ultimate is to be around next summer and the following Australian winter. It's the ultimate for an Australian summer cricketer and the build-up is something you never experience in anything else. It probably won't have any bearing in the Ashes but it will put a line in the sand to see where we're at."

Bring it on cobber.

 

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