In Royal Challengers Bangalore's disastrous campaign last season, Shane Watson played eight matches and scored all of 71 runs. He bowled 26.5 overs for only five wickets and an economy rate of 9.13. He was about to turn 36 then and did not possess a fresh pair of legs, and it seemed only natural when RCB released him ahead of the 2018 auction.
There were rumours that he was playing his last IPL, and he himself admitted, "there may be a time when, hopefully, I get a chance to coach somewhere, and it just takes over from my playing days," at the end of the tournament.
When his name came up in the auction with a base price of INR 1 crore, only Chennai Super Kings bid for him initially before Rajasthan Royals joined in. Whenever Royals raised their paddle, Stephen Fleming, the CSK coach, replied immediately with a bigger bid. What was he thinking? Why did he want an out-of-form 36-year-old?
Fleming had done his homework. Watson had found some form at home, with 331 runs from 10 innings for the Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League. Two half-centuries, a strike rate of 139, nothing extraordinary. Fleming explained at the press conference after winning his third IPL title with CSK that he kept a close eye on Watson and had "no doubt" the allrounder would do well. CSK bought him for INR 4 crore.
"When you look at his season with RCB, he was in and out, and he batted at No. 4," Fleming said. "I also watched him closely at the Big Bash and there were signs that he was in good form. Certainly, every team that I have come up against, he seems in good form, so the best way to get rid of him is to buy him. I had no doubt he was going to make an impact. Fitness was an issue as it is a long tournament, but he is more professional than even I thought. He is a bit broken now. [His] bowling, we didn't have to use much but he has got through with one of his greatest performances."
In the UAE a month after the auction, Watson finished as the fifth-highest run-getter in the Pakistan Super League with similar numbers to the BBL: 319 runs from 10 innings, two half-centuries and a strike rate of 135.
With those numbers behind him, Watson got his "favourite" position in the line-up, in the IPL - the opening slot. He first showed against Rajasthan Royals what kind of damage he could inflict from there: a 51-ball century.
On Sunday, in the IPL final, he was coming off a duck against the same opponents they were meeting in the final, Sunrisers Hyderabad. Bhuvneshwar Kumar was toying with him again, and it seemed as if Watson had no clue what was happening. The ball was bouncing, swinging both ways, and Bhuvneshwar was making it do whatever he wanted, at speeds in the mid-130s. Fleming admitted later CSK were "lucky" Watson didn't lose his wicket.
"Yeah, it was a good struggle, wasn't it?" Fleming said. "The opening spell was, I thought, outstanding from SRH. He might've been none off 10 balls. It was a real battle in the first four or five overs. It was a great final in that sense. Shane gradually found a bit of range and rhythm. The boundaries aren't too big for the big hitters like Watson, Brathwaite and Dhoni. He kept patience - again, that was experience - didn't give it away. He knew his power game would get the team out of trouble, and it did in spectacular fashion. He got his second hundred of the tournament, he's got over 500 runs. He has been a star performer for us."
When Watson was on 0 off 10 in the fourth over, Sunrisers fans could have made memes already of how Watson was going to cost his team the match, and the trophy. CSK were chasing 179 against the best attack in the tournament on the biggest stage. In Bhuvneshwar's third over on the trot, Watson and Suresh Raina took four singles. Watson's first job was done - to act like a sponge, absorb all the threats Sunrisers' attack was posing, and not give a wicket to Bhuvneshwar. As soon as he was out of the attack, Watson changed gears, smacking a short and slow delivery in the last Powerplay over from Sandeep Sharma over deep midwicket for six. He must have expected the delivery next; he stood still, let the ball come to him, and drilled it back for four.
Kane Williamson brought on Siddarth Kaul, Sunrisers' best fast bowler this season, but he turned out to be a different bowler on Sunday night. He was bowling short, down the leg side, and into Watson's pads. Watson can flick those away even in his sleep. The result - 16 off the over. All the pressure Watson had absorbed was now being transferred back onto Sunrisers.
Williamson now brought on Rashid Khan. As with Bhuvneshwar, all CSK wanted was to not give him wickets. In his first two overs, Watson nudged him into the leg side whenever he spotted a googly and Suresh Raina kept dabbing him to midwicket one ball after another.
Fleming explained later that having a strategy against Rashid was a "key focus" to win the final. "[Facing] Rashid Khan was a definite plan," he said. "We actually have played him quite well, we've been more positive in the past, but we were afforded the luxury through Shane's hitting of being more conservative, even playing out a maiden. At that point in time, we had really nullified his impact and that was a key focus for our tactics to win the final, and we did that well."
By seeing off Rashid's first two overs without much fuss, the Watson sponge had done its job again. When Sandeep got the ball again, the Watson sponge became the Watson bludgeon again. In the 13th over, Sandeep kept missing his yorkers and Watson kept clubbing them. A drive over wide mid-off for four, three consecutive sixes off misdirected deliveries, and a four off the last ball, expertly guided between backward point and short third man, gave CSK 27 runs from the over. It brought the equation down to 48 runs from 42 balls, which ended the match right there. Rashid still had two overs left and Bhuvneshwar one, and they would bowl them with CSK facing no scoreboard pressure.
In Rashid's last over, Watson completed his hundred and stood still at the non-striker's end while facing his team's dugout, with a beaming smile and arms aloft. In the 19th over, Ambati Rayudu hit the winning runs and Watson ambled across the pitch to embrace his partner. His back was to the dugout, so he didn't realise that a swarm of his team-mates was running towards him. Rayudu quietly slipped away, allowing them to clamber all over Watson.
If this team management had not stood behind Watson when he was being written off, he wouldn't have scored two centuries this season. And if Watson had not shown his patience and experience on Sunday, who knows how CSK would have handled the pressure on this big night.