England’s ‘clever’ move outsmarted by gutsy Shane Watson
ALL summer long, England have managed to dig a way out of deep holes. The evidence of their effective spadework - the Ashes resoundingly retained - has been so encouraging that they decided to excavate their own hole and see how long it might take them to emerge into daylight.
Should they fail to climb out they know where to look for blame. Australia had reached 307 for 4 after the first day of the fifth Investec Test. Shane Watson, the nearly man of the past decade, made 176, driving imperiously and hitting the ball as hard as it has been hit all season.
He overcame a horrible blow on the head from a bouncer when he was 91 and survived a chance to slip not long after he had reached his third Test century in his 84th innings. The fourth-wicket partnership with Steve Smith, never looking quite as safe as the Bank of Australia, was worth 145.
In the morning, Watson had started uncertainly in his fourth different batting position of the series. Otherwise, he exuded authority on a benign, discouraging pitch and his dismissal late in the evening when Kevin Pietersen took a grand running catch on the boundary came not a moment too soon for the home side. Then again, this has been England's habit throughout the Ashes. It is why they have annexed them once more.
Watson was utterly disdainful of the two bowlers picked by England to play their first Test matches and the reason for the extent of their difficulties. If Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan were surprising choices in the squad named last weekend, few can have expected either or both to play.
England's adolescent refusal to offer a public clue about their team was well-advised on this occasion. Had Australia known about the debutants before the toss, the damage they might have done hardly bears contemplation.
In some ways it was a smart Alec piece of selection. England make much of the insistence that they always pick the team they believe gives them the best chance of winning but it is impossible to believe that this is the XI they would have named had they not been 3-0 ahead.
Woakes, the medium pace all-rounder from Warwickshire, was less exposed than the hapless Kerrigan, of Lancashire who is the country's leading spinner in the Championship this season, albeit in the Second Division. Although Woakes' third over in Test cricket yielded three fours, all plundered by Watson, Kerrigan went for 10 in his first and 18 in his second, all but one bludgeoned by Watson. It was a player of vast, if unfulfilled experience letting the kids know all about it.
By the afternoon, when both were given another opportunity, Woakes found something of a length while being some way short of probing, Kerrigan could barely release the ball. It was sad to watch a bowler go through this and his first eight overs in Test cricket, the length all over the place and the rotation minimal, cost 53 runs.
Had Tim Bresnan been fit, this mess could probably have been avoided. England would have thought extremely hard about changing a winning team. As it is, they presumably decided initially to choose two spinners in a home Test for the first time since 2009.
After, they must still have felt they needed a third seamer as insurance while not weakening their batting too much. Out went the unconvincing Jonny Bairstow, and in came Woakes at the expense of Chris Tremlett. England's friends could have told them they were already burrowing at this stage. It means that the raw Woakes or the out of form Matt Prior must bat at No 6, a pivotal position to which neither is accustomed.
In the event, it started well enough after Australia won another important toss. Were they not to muck this up as they have mucked up all other advantageous positions in the season so far, it would mean that four of the five matches in the series had been won by the side winning the toss.
David Warner played a careless drive in the fifth over of the morning against Jimmy Anderson and was pouched by Prior. Watson was distinctly uncomfortable against England's prime bowlers at the start but once they were removed it was as if the shackles were unleashed. He was 12 from 22 balls and 50 from 61. It was taking from candy from kids time.
After lunch, Graeme Swann, had Chris Rogers caught at slip with one that turned just enough. It was the sixth time in the series that Swann had dismissed Rogers. Swann bowled with aplomb throughout the afternoon. He had to.
Michael Clarke was roughed up by Anderson and Stuart Broad in concert. Broad bowled a fierce spell after lunch, completely undisturbed by the fuss surrounding him after the rumbustious comments by the Australia coach, Darren Lehmann, on an Australian radio station in which he was accused of cheating. Broad may provoke controversy but he has a way of simply getting on with the job.
A series of bouncers were let loose. Broad hit Watson on the back of the head with one and had Clarke all at sea with others. Soon enough, Clarke was bowled through the gate by Anderson. Watson and Smith had a profitable afternoon. It was another surprise when Watson pulled Broad and was held by an athletic Pietersen at deep backward square. England could just glimpse sunlight again.