Shane Watson has been insisting for months that he is a bowler. As he has been laid low by a series of soft-tissue niggles, most recently a calf strain that would neither go away nor deteriorate enough to be classified as a serious ailment, Watson’s value with the ball has been underlined most in his absence.
Australia need him to bowl, and he needs to bowl to feel a complete cricketer. And as Australia have come to learn, a content Watto is an effective Watto.
Effective enough to bowl 90 deliveries in the second innings at Trent Bridge, only four of which an England batsman was able to put away for runs.
As the contest started to resemble the draining final overs of a desperate fifth-day thriller, Watson’s value was emphasised by his dogmatic approach to line and length.
His analysis of 15-11-11-0 may not cause pulses to race, nor was he rewarded with a wicket, but he won the prize for economy on a day when his colleagues were taxed for 31 boundaries and saw the Test match first inching then cantering towards England.
Angus Fraser used to rail against those quicks described as attacking bowlers. It simply meant they got hit for boundaries, he suggested.
Bowling was about building pressure by denying runs, he said, the natural consequence of hitting the right line and length ball after ball after sweat-stained ball.
Australia boast a fine crop of pacemen, including Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and Mitchell Starc in this Test, Ryan Harris and Jackson Bird in the wings and excitement machines like Pat Cummins, Nathan Coulter-Nile and the South Australian firebrand Kane Richardson waiting their turn.
Yet Watson is capable of doing something that few of the others can manage, even conceive.
A genuine medium-pacer in the sense that he will never terrify a batsman with pace much above 80mph, Watson nonetheless is armed with several vital weapons. He has a bowling brain, that rare and precious amalgam of connective tissue and imagination. He has a relatively simple and repeatable action that allows him to land the ball in the same place over after over.
And he has the patience and discipline required to see a plan to conclusion.
“What I do love about being an all-rounder is feeling like you can have some impact on the game with bat and ball at a time when it feels like the game is starting to slip,” Watson said after the most recent of his interminable campaigns to return to the bowling crease. So it proved at Trent Bridge as England set about building the target that Australia may eventually find a batsman or session too far.
High-performance manager Pat Howard supplied one of the most damning sledges in Australian cricket during the disastrous India tour this year when Watson was one of four players suspended for failing to complete performance reviews as the team slid towards a 4-0 whitewash.
“I know Shane reasonably well,” Howard said of the then Australian Test vice-captain. “I think he acts in the best interests of the team – sometimes.”
There was no issue about Watson acting in the best interest of the team yesterday.
He lumbered in 72 times, each time completing his follow-through with that familiar grimace on his face that so many times has indicated yet another muscle has been stretched beyond its bounds.
Watson denied himself the satisfaction of bowling for extended periods over the last year, rationalising his abstinence as an investment in a future comeback with a stronger and more flexible chassis.
“That was a time that reaffirmed to me that I really do want to bowl,” he explained.
“It reaffirmed that I’m never going to give up bowling.”
That is good news for Australia, for whom a steady hand at the bowling crease may be as valuable as the flamboyant pace and swing of its battalion of tearaways.
John Townsend is Cricket Writer at the West Australian
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