Where were you when Shane Watson first became a Test opener? It hardly qualifies as cricket’s JFK question, but it may yet be one to tell the grandchildren. (For what it’s worth, I was in the Edgbaston press box, noting down – like most other guffawing hacks – that Watson had once averaged about 4 during a mercifully brief spell as opener for Queensland.)
While most of us wait in vain for the moment Watson’s stiff-legged, Labrador-keen style is finally exposed for what we’ve always imagined it really is, a dirty secret is emerging in the Australian dressing room. Because without the supposedly makeshift opening pairing of Watson and Simon Katich, you’d currently make England favourites to retain the Ashes. And even with them, it’s beginning to look too close to call.
Among Australian Test opening partnerships to have batted together in at least 20 innings, only Bill Lawry and Bobby Simpson average more per stand (nearly 61) than the 54 typically put on by Watson and Katich. Justin Langer and Matthew Hayden, incidentally, averaged just shy of 52. We are in pinch-me territory. And no one is being pinched more often than Watson.
Since replacing Phil Hughes for the third Ashes Test of 2009, Watson has averaged over 50 as an opener (in seven innings at No 6 he has averaged 24; in six innings at No 7, just 14). He may yet go down as Australia’s best right-handed opener since David Boon. But it is his unlikely alliance with Katich – biffer and nurdler, He-Man and man’s man – that is currently papering over Australia’s batting cracks.
Their collapse in the second innings of the Mohali Test was symptomatic: when 87 without loss became 192 all out, a slide that ultimately cost Australia the game, you wondered just how excited Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss might have been getting. In a very un-Australian way, the rest of the batting line-up is in danger of bottoming out ahead of an Ashes series.
Ricky Ponting’s two dismissals (run out and caught on the hook) both hinted at the slowing-down of reactions many have suspected for some time, while Michael Clarke has one half-century in six Test innings. Michael Hussey has two in 11 since he was dropped repeatedly by Kamran Akmal during his unbeaten 134 in Sydney, and the increasingly hopeless Marcus North has not passed 20 in six attempts.
This is not to gloat on behalf of the Poms in advance, for in home conditions against an English seam attack that may yet wilt under the weight of its own workload, Ponting and Co could still score a stack. But we are in strange territory when a manufactured opening batsman is showing the experts the way.
Australia’s selectors may decide fresh blood is needed for Brisbane, regardless of how their batsmen perform in the second Test against India in Bangalore. But they may note one thing: on only eight previous occasions in Test cricket have Australia scored more in the first innings than their 428 in Mohali and lost. The winning habit is hard-earned and easily lost. Time, you suspect, for Watson and Katich to get a helping hand.
Lawrence Booth writes on cricket for the Daily Mail and you can sign up here for his weekly newsletter ‘the Top Spin’, which was named Online Column of the Year at the Sports Journalists’ Association awards