Wonderful Watson sinks England
Shane Watson marked the 40th anniversary of the inaugural one-day international with one of the finest innings the format has seen as Australia opened the Commonwealth Bank Series in style at the MCG.
His magnificent unbeaten 161 off 150 balls anchored Australia’s record pursuit of 295 under the floodlights, achieved with five deliveries to spare and six wickets in hand.
There could have been no more fitting way to seal victory than Watson’s mighty six over long-on off Ajmal Shahzad, bringing the crowd to its feet for the umpteenth time on a balmy evening in Melbourne which will be remembered just as fondly as that of January 5, 1971.
As was the case on that occasion, Australia ran out ultimately comfortable winners, even if England’s late fightback with the ball aroused their hopes of successfully defending their highest total on Australian soil.
For that Watson deserves infinite credit. It says much for his character - and talent - after his much-publicised failure to convert four half-centuries into three-figure scores during Australia’s ill-fated Ashes campaign.
The outcome of the Test series heightened the sense of importance leading into the limited-overs matches, but two Twenty20 games, both of which went down to the final ball, allied to this pulsating contest will make the job of the marketing men at Cricket Australia a good deal easier.
While Pietersen’s 78 off 75 deliveries - his first half-century since November 2008 - illuminated England’s 294 all out, it could have been so much greater had he or one of his colleagues kicked on.
Andrew Strauss, back leading the side after sitting out the drawn T20 campaign, batted with increasing fluency in hitting a sprightly 63, while Steven Davies rode his considerable luck to make 42.
Of the three, Strauss was alone in scoring at less than a run a ball - and only just - on a reliable drop-in pitch, but the momentum built up during periods of rapid scoring was checked by the loss of wickets in clutches.
By contrast, Watson shared century stands with Brad Haddin and Michael Clarke before Cameron White helped him overcome a minor collapse set in motion by Tim Bresnan.
Bresnan was England’s most potent bowler with two wickets. That they came at a cost of 71 runs reflected the problems the tourists had in containing Watson.
Watson’s innings, the fifth highest by an Australian in one-day cricket, was a wonderful illustration of what can be achieved with authentic strokeplay, albeit assisted by biceps that would give Popeye a run for his money.
As in the Test series, he drove with power and poise from the outset, and only once the required run-rate rose beyond seven an over did he unfurl the sort of rustic slog-sweeps which saw Michael Yardy taken for successive sixes in an over costing 17.
He was reprieved on 44 when Jonathan Trott, falling back, spilled a tough chance at mid-on, and top-edged a sweep narrowly over fine-leg after he had breached three figures. Otherwise, it was hard to recall a stroke which did not ooze authority.
England were reliant on their best bowler, Graeme Swann, for a belated breakthrough in the 20th over when Haddin swept rather foolishly to deep square-leg. His share of an opening stand worth 110 was just 39.
Clarke, too, had little choice but to play second fiddle to Watson during a partnership of 103 for the second wicket, but never gave the impression of finding his touch before he swatted Bresnan to extra-cover to depart for 36. The importance of his contribution far outweighed his fluency.
His was the first of three wickets to tumble for the addition of 31 runs, the impressive Shahzad having Steven Smith smartly taken by a diving Yardy at short third man before Mike Hussey chipped Bresnan to square-leg.
Had Trott clung on to a tough, low chance running in from deep square-leg with White on nine and the score 267 for four, the result may have been different.
Then again, given how well Watson was batting, the chances are that he would have seen Australia home regardless.
His composure contrasted sharply with Australia’s amateurish display in the field, which would have shamed the third XI at your local club.
Davies was the chief beneficiary: he should have been run out without facing a ball when Smith missed from barely a yard away, he was caught off at long-leg off a Brett Lee no-ball, dropped by Watson at short extra-cover, and survived a stumping chance - all before he had passed 24.
Strauss was also some way short of his best, but the statistic that mattered most was England’s opening stand of 90 in 12 overs, broken only when Davies was bowled aiming an unsightly heave at David Hussey.
Hussey’s part-time off-spin also accounted for Trott, who was caught behind attempting a steer to third man, and Lee ensured Haddin’s second missed stumping to reprieve Strauss on 48 did not prove too costly as a leading edge was taken by Clarke at cover moments later.
Neither Ian Bell, who drove tamely to Clarke at extra-cover, nor Eoin Morgan, caught by White in a similar position after making a mess of a cut, distinguished themselves with the manner of their departures as an England side minus the dropped Paul Collingwood suffered a mid-innings wobble.
Pietersen, another to be handed a life by Haddin, responded by lifting Hussey for successive straight sixes - the second a monstrous hit into the upper tier of the stand - to bring up his 51-ball half-century and the England 200.
Yardy made just nine in a 50-run stand for the sixth wicket with Pietersen, who saw his partner pull Doug Bollinger to deep square-leg before he himself was run out in the first over of the batting powerplay. Mitchell Johnson’s accuracy with his right boot in his follow-through proved vastly superior to his left arm.
Given that Bresnan cut Lee to third man and Swann spooned Johnson to mid-on, England were thankful for late sixes from Shahzad and Chris Tremlett for taking them beyond their previous highest total of 292 for seven, made at Sydney four years ago. The outstanding Watson ensured it was not enough.