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Watson shakes off troubled past to shine in starring role

Shane Watson has long been a cricketer searching for a role but perhaps he has found in it his new and most unlikely persona.

An awful lot of teams recognised his ability and wanted him – over the years he has played for Queensland, Tasmania, Hampshire, Rajasthan Royals and, soon, New South Wales. Mostly, he has been an all-rounder, batting in the middle, taking the ball as second change, chipping in. Sometimes he has been a fast bowler (even the older devices say he sends them down at 140kph [87mph]). Wounded, he has played a season of Shield cricket as a top-order batsmen. He has performed these task capably but none of them conclusively.

Until yesterday afternoon Watson was not only looking for his true identity as a cricketer, he was seeking a place in the side. Over the years he has made many promising starts only to fall back as some misfortune befell him. Mostly it was not his cricket that let him down but his body. Repeatedly he has seemed on the brink of establishing himself only to pull one his many muscles and to be forced to spend more months on the treadmill.

If his record is modest, an average of 19 with the bat in Test cricket and 35.5 with the leather, it is partly because he has never enjoyed a long run in the side. In some respects it was the same for his opening partner, a player easily ignored – a cricketer undone by salmonella and other untimely interferences. The only difference was that Simon Katich was for an unconscionable period an outsider, Watson has always been an insider. In both cases persistence paid off and now Katto and Watto have formed one of the more improbable collaborations Australian cricket has known.

Watson must have wondered when his time might come. He arrived on his second Ashes trip as a 28-year-old reserve with a patchy record. His inclusion was due to a desire to keep options open – he was the spare batsman, fifth bowler and support speedster. He was a handy member of a squad concerned about its batting, aware that a fifth bowler might be needed and uncertain about Andrew McDonald, the incumbent all-rounder.

Between the injuries and the failures the think-tank refused to give up on Watson and kept finding reasons to recall him. They regarded him as a high-class cricketer whose abilities remained untapped. They sent him to India and he scored a few runs and took a few wickets without having much impact. Here was a big, strong man held back by his own misgivings: was he supposed to give it a crack or put his head down? Bowl fast or swing it around? He had so many roles but which was him? And could he ever dominate?

Now he has been turned into an opening batsmen. At first it seemed a bit like casting David Niven as a cockney, but as the overs passed yesterday and his score mounted so the feeling grew that he had found not so much his role as his definitive performance. He looked the part from the outset, he did not falter and did not merely contribute, he went the whole hog.

Certainly luck was on his side. It was a good toss to win, the skies were blue, the bowling was tame and a plumb leg before and a few swishes were survived. But he deserved a bit of luck. Moreover, he was not daunted by his task or stiff in this company. Indeed he batted with a liberated spirit, produced umpteen superbly executed drives, played with a broad bat and placed all around the wicket.

He used his hands to late cut and ran alertly between wickets. In other words he bore a stark resemblance to a Test opener. Body permitting, he'll be around for some time.