Test hundreds are rarely easy. But for Shane Watson, Test hundreds are never easy.
Before the beginning of today’s play, Watson had scored 20 fifties and just two hundreds, and he’d been dismissed six times between 88 and 97. Most men have a better record converting a girl in the ‘Friend Zone’ into a girlfriend than Watson does fifties into hundreds.
Yet his first 91 runs today, as they so often do for Watson, looked easy. He’d hit 64 runs in boundaries alone, more than in any other innings in his career. He was timing the ball well, his feet were moving nicely, his balance was good and England had appealed for an lbw against him just twice.
But then, nine runs short of a century, a fierce short ball from Stuart Broad reared up towards Watson’s helmet, who arched his back and began to sway before realizing he wasn't going to avoid contact. He closed his eyes and turned his head: thwack. The ball had found a way through a small gap between the grill and the back of the helmet and struck Watson brutally under the ear.
The sharp intake of breath from the crowd was audible as Watson stumbled away in pain. He preciously removed his helmet and crouched on all fours before receiving lengthy treatment from Australia’s physio.
Watson was visibly shaken as his injury was tended to. The delay between that delivery and the next was agonizing. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes.
Watson was in the nineties, he’d just been hit and he looked to be in genuine discomfort. He hadn't scored a Test century since October 10, 2010, and now he’d had the best part of five minutes to think about the looming milestone.
This innings appeared to be following an all too familiar script.
With his ears most likely still ringing from the blow, Watson took guard to Broad again, who glared menacingly from the top of his run-up. Suddenly the crowd were abuzz. The feeling of the occasion transformed. The hundred that seemed imminent just moments before suddenly felt a long, long way away. Nine enormous runs away. So close, yet so far.
Two men were posted on the square leg boundary. Bluff? Double bluff? Yorker? Bouncer? The follow-up ball was short and only got up waist-high. Watson nudged it onto the leg-side for one.
A dot ball followed. And another. And another. Focus Shane, focus. And one more. Focus. And a fifth. And a sixth. Watson’s nemesis James Anderson into the attack. A two and then a single. Drip, drop, drip, drop. Edging closer. Watson on 96. One shot away. Graeme Swann nurdled to midwicket for one more. 97. Another single off Anderson. 98. Then another off Swann. 99. One run away. Dot ball off Anderson. Still one run away.
Anderson offers a hint of width. Watson plants his front-foot and leans into a drive. The ball is timed nicely onto the off side. Through the in-field. Past the fielder. There it is! The crowd exhales. The tension let out of the ground like air from a balloon. 100 up.
As the day wore on, Watson wore on. Past his previous Test-best, past 150, past the Decision Review System, past 175. Brutally belligerent.
This innings might see Watson turn a corner. But then again Watson’s turned more corners than Nigel Mansell in his career. However, having batted in every position from one to six in the past 12 months, repeatedly getting out lbw, repeatedly abusing the DRS and repeatedly performing well within his potential, Watson was beginning to parody himself.
50 wouldn't have been enough to silence his critics. 70 wouldn't have been enough. 90 wouldn't have been enough. 99 wouldn't have been enough. But a hundred is enough. At least for now.
It wasn't easy. But then again, Test hundreds for Shane Watson never are.