On the balance of the first Investec Ashes Test in Cardiff, there was one major discrepancy between England and Australia. At number six for England was Ben Stokes. At number six for Australia was Shane Watson.
Stokes’ first innings 52 ensured the momentum that Gary Ballance and Joe Root had built in a 153 run fourth wicket stand wasn’t lost. He’s always willing to have a go, top edging Mitchell Johnson for six to get his innings underway and depositing Nathan Lyon way over the straight boundary alongside six fours. England were 196/4 when he arrived and 293/6 when he left.
In England’s second innings, as they looked to turn the screw on their opponents, Stokes was again to the fore with a brisk 42 that contained nine fours. His match tally of 94 runs was impressive and in both innings he kept the momentum going for England.
It was in stark contrast to the hapless Watson, dismissed lbw in both innings for 30 and 19 respectively. Stuart Broad and Mark Wood reaped the rewards of some of the most obvious bowling tactics you could wish to see; make Watson play straight and make him play around his front pad. It was a ploy that cost 49 runs all game.
In the first innings, Watson came to the crease with the score on 207/4. The game was in the balance and Australia had laid a solid enough foundation to at least challenge England’s first innings 430. When Watson trudged off with the score on 265/6, however, England were very much in the ascendancy.
Watson’s second innings 19 carried an air of despair. A man struck plumb in front for seemingly the thousandth time, looking longingly at the umpire, then his team mate, then at the Decision Review System. It was probably the last we have seen of him, at least in Test cricket.
Watson’s has been a career that has flattered to deceive. 59 Tests and an average of 35 are not the hallmarks of a great. Not really of a ‘good’ international player, either. He’s always a player who has carried ‘potential’, but at 34, he now looks more like a busted flush.
Stokes also averages 35 in Test cricket, but his career appears to only be heading in one direction after 12 Tests. In the first Test here, he added impetus where Watson added disappointment.
Stokes also resembles a genuine fourth seam option for England. He is capable of reaching 90mph and has the discipline to eke out wickets, as witnessed with his only wicket of the Test, that of Adam Voges. He just plugged away on a tight line, denying Voges the opportunity to score, before enticing him into a loose drive with a fuller, wider delivery.
It was during a period of play that turned the screw on Australia’s first innings, capitalising on a spell of three successive maiden overs from James Anderson. Stokes looks a genuine facet of this England fast bowling line up. Watson was never more than bits and pieces to Australia’s.
And so Mitchell Marsh will likely replace Watson for Lord’s. He need only look at his opposite number at six to know the level that he needs to achieve.
By Miles Reucroft