“Anderson to Amla, FOUR, for a second it appeared he’d spooned that to midwicket, but he timed his bottom-hand punch over the in-field superbly…and that’s a new career-best for Amla. A monumental innings.”
One of the abiding memories of 2012, other than the Olympics, Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France, Andy Murray’s SW19 exploits and of course the England Football Team’s fine, understated performance in the Euro 2012 Championship, is of watching Hashim Amla bat. And bat. And bat…
“Bresnan to Watson, OUT, Bresnan strikes! He has Watson lbw in the last over before lunch! Great ball, angled in and Watson moved across with the front pad and missed the ball, he’s rapped right in front and Dharmasena gives it lbw. Watson chats for a while with Rogers and eventually makes the decision to review it. It’s a poor decision because that was plumb. That’s not how to use the review system.”
That front foot plant; that helpless swish; the stupidity of those reviews. In spite of the schoolboy front foot, the glaring technical error which needed ironing out in his teens and the cause of the bat really having nowhere to go as the ball nips in, it is the review that is somehow the most symbolic part of the Watson saga. The man is in denial. Opening the batting, he is a fine metaphor for the state of the Australian cricket team.
Hashim Amla 2012 was a poem. He was a fragrance. The sleekest of classic motors; he purred, he melted on the tongue, he enchanted. The prevailing mental snapshot of Amla from last summer is the slip cordon’s cry, hands on heads as Amla clipped length balls from off-stump through mid-wicket, usually for four. Unconventional, wrists of both iron strength and rubber elasticity. Brilliance.
A Shane Watson drive booms. When he gets things right, the heavy bat crunches the cherry to the fence. He can be fearsome, uncompromising. He is not the walking wicket England have made him out to be so far this summer. In Melbourne in January 2011, Watson crunched 161 in a One Day International and was on that day imperious, a great. I’m not sure if I remember it because I was there (‘cos I is well travelled innit), or if I remember it because it was one of the great One Day innings. Either way it was dominant, it was brilliance.
The difference between the two men, and the two years? England’s bowlers were not at their best last summer with Graeme Swann, Stuart Broad and Tim Bresnan all carrying injuries. Alongside Graeme Smith, Amla exacerbated that with his apparent weaknesslessness (this is a real word). His concentration was the salt in the wound, his balance the vinegar on the cut, his adaptability the prodding finger into the gaping raw flesh. England’s conventional plans were blunted, and when they did provoke a momentary lapse Amla was ‘let off’ by some sloppy dropped chances. 2013 Watson has had no such fortune.
However there is much more to this than the performance of the opposition. Like Watson, Hashim Amla too is capable of great ODI innings – he sits at the top of the ICC rankings in both formats – and yet his ability to adjust to each individual delivery sets him apart. Like Watson, Amla has an initial forward press. In an instant though, Amla plays late enough and is wristy enough to react to what is coming, capable of adjusting his feet to reflect any movement from the ball. The spikes on Watson’s left boot grow roots. His hands come through for the drive that isn’t always there.
When describing Monty Panesar in 2008, Shane Warne once said ‘He’s not played 33 Tests, he’s played the same Test 33 times’. The mentality of Shane Watson is similar. His strength is the booming front foot drive. So he plays the shot. CRUNCH, FOUR RUNS. That was excellent, Shano. Only, he wants to play the same shot to the next ball. He might even get hold of it, another boundary, Watto the ubermensch! The ball after that too, he is again looking to drive. Again there is scant regard for where the ball might be pitching, or any movement that might occur. This time, he’s rapped on the aforementioned front pad. Even before the finger inevitably goes up he knows he will refer…
Watson is likely to open the batting again for Australia at least in the Third Test at Old Trafford. James Anderson is on record as saying that he doesn’t like bowling to Watson; in fact I expect none of the England bowlers really do given his unforgiving destructiveness and slayer of economy rates. However as much as they might worry about Watson’s power they know there is a chance. Always a glimmer. A ray of light, no matter how bright. A beacon of hope. A prayer. Dear Lord, Allah, God, whoever…Please please PLEASE don’t make me bowl to Hashim Amla again.