THE abiding memory of Shane Watson for most English supporters will be of the ball thudding squarely into his pads as he looked pleadingly at the umpire to spare him his blushes.
But after the hulking Aussie all-rounder called time on his Big Bash career last week – effectively ending his professional career in Australian cricket – there will be plenty of Hampshire supporters still misty-eyed over his ability to smite a cricket ball vast distances.
“Shane Watson was one of the most exciting short-form players ever to grace a cricket field,” said Cricket Australia chief executive, Kevin Roberts. “Talented, skilful and powerful, Shane was a devastating batsman at his best.”
Those sentiments would be echoed by those who saw him play for Hampshire over two seasons in 2004 and 2005.
“There were a lot of people saying ‘Shane who?’ when we brought him to Hampshire,” says the county’s then manager, Paul Terry. “I felt like it was my job to go back to Australia and spread the word on Watto.”
Hampshire were awash with Aussies 15 seasons ago, with Watson joining captain, Shane Warne, and future Aussie skipper Michael Clarke at the then Rose Bowl. Michael Dighton, a former team-mate of Watson with Tasmania would swell those numbers while the former and Clarke were away on international duty.
And having been ruled out of the 2003 World Cup – which Australia won having knocked England out in the group stages – as a result of injury, Watson was keen to make up for lost time.
Originally only available for one-day cricket, Watson was eventually cleared to play in the County Championship for promotion chasing Hampshire in June 2004 and wasted no time in making an impact.
Somerset, it’s fair to say, didn’t know what had hit them. Watson brought up his debut hundred for the county in just 124 balls – providing a platform for a 275-run thrashing of the visitors. All achieved with a hamstring injury that necessitated the use of a runner.
“It was a bit different,” he said. “I’ve never had a runner before in any form of cricket, but it didn’t restrict my shot-making too much. I really enjoyed it, I like to give the ball a whack, it’s good fun.”
The Somerset bowlers didn’t enjoy it so much but Hampshire were already hatching plans to make Watson’s relationship with the county a more permanent one.
“He had a huge impact,” says Terry. “He had a really positive influence on everyone in that dressing room and I think his time in England definitely helped him develop his game. In many ways you could probably say it was the catalyst for him becoming a regular in the Aussie team, not just in ODI cricket but in Test match cricket, too.”
The following year would, of course, go down in English cricket history as England beat the Aussies in an Ashes series for the first time since 1986-87.
Watson, desperate to demonstrate his credentials with ball as well as bat, found himself on the outside looking in in international-terms that summer. But as Simon Katich and Warne vacated the Rose Bowl to take on England, Watson strode in and once again demonstrated why he would go on to become one of the most dangerous players in world cricket.
In his first match as Warne’s replacement, Hampshire found themselves chasing down Surrey’s mammoth total of 358 in the quarter-finals of the then C&G Cup. Hampshire were 41-2 and starring down the barrel when Watson swaggered his way to the Oval. By the time he was out, Hampshire were 342-8 and closing in on what remains one of domestic cricket’s most remarkable run chases.
“That was just an astonishing game of cricket,” said Shaun Udal after Hampshire had duly claimed a two-wicket win.
With Hampshire in the last four, Watson was already eyeing an appearance in a Lord’s final. An eight-wicket waltz over Yorkshire in the last four – with Watson taking 2-29 and then scoring 11 not out from 11 balls as Hampshire chased down the Tykes score of 198 – turned that dream into reality.
In a team that genuinely was a league of nations, with the likes of Nic Pothas, Greg Lamb, Kevin Latouf, Andy Bichel and Sean Ervine joining an English contingent that included John Crawley, Chris Tremlett and Udal, Watson and his teammates headed to Lord’s for a meeting with Warwickshire.
Again, the Aussie all-rounder was one of the Hampshire heroes, taking 3-34 as the Bears fell short of Hampshire’s 290 by 18 runs, despite a gallant century from Nick Knight.
For Watson it was the perfect way to say goodbye, although as recently as 2013 he made it clear that he would have loved to return, pointing to his close relationship with Hampshire supremo, Rod Bransgrove.
That chance has now gone. But recollections of Watson in this part of the world will always be happy ones.
RICHARD EDWARDS / Photo: Getty Images