With the hosts 3-0 up in the series, Alastair Cook will lift the urn at the end of the match regardless of the result, but Watson’s dominant 176 on day one saw his side to 307 for four and places them well to chase a first victory of a miserable summer.
Batting at No 3, his fourth different position this summer, Watson ended a Test century drought totalling 48 innings and almost three years before being superbly caught by Kevin Pietersen just before stumps.
Watson recovered from a nasty blow by Stuart Broad to ease past his previous best of 126, hitting 25 fours and a six along the way. But England, who so rarely deviate from their plan, will have been disappointed by their first sight of Warwickshire all-rounder Woakes and Lancashire slow left-armer Kerrigan.
Their inclusion in place of the injured Tim Bresnan and the dropped Jonny Bairstow raised eyebrows before play, with Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn considered much likelier picks, and even more so afterwards.
The duo turned in combined figures of nought for 105 in 23 overs with Kerrigan, in particular, suffering from a chronic case of stage fright.
England had called on a second spinner on home turf for the first time since the opening Test of the 2009 Ashes and it may be even longer before they do so again.
James Anderson’s two wickets were the counterpoint, taking him to 326 Test scalps – ahead of Bob Willis and behind only Sir Ian Botham on England’s all-time list.
After an hour the game was evenly poised at 37 for one, England perhaps marginally happier having dismissed David Warner for six. Anderson was the bowler, pushing one across the left-hander and picking up the edge to gift wicket-keeper Matt Prior a regulation catch.
That brought Anderson level with Willis and he must have fancied an early sight of Watson, whose tendency to fall lbw has been a feature of the series.
Anderson rapped him on the pads when he had just eight, but umpire Aleem Dar favoured the batsman in a tight call.
The game changed swiftly after the drinks break, with Watson’s natural aggression easily trumping the inexperience of England’s newcomers. Woakes managed one maiden in his opening burst but otherwise served up too many loose balls as his other four overs cost 30, mainly to Watson, who also lifted Graeme Swann for a mighty straight six, perhaps a sign that the time was not ripe to introduce Kerrigan.
But Cook tossed the 24-year-old the ball moments later and the result was dispiriting. Watson instantly went on the attack, flaying Kerrigan for six boundaries in two overs that cost a total of 28.
Kerrigan offered up one full toss and a handful of inviting long hops and a pre-lunch century for Watson briefly looked possible until Broad returned to restore some control.
At the interval Watson had 80 of Australia’s 112 for one, with Chris Rogers sedate on 21. Rogers added two more in the afternoon before Swann, sent him back via a smart slip catch by Jonathan Trott.
Broad followed with a fierce spell of short bowling from the Vauxhall End, almost castling captain Michael Clarke off his arm guard and then striking Watson violently between neck and jaw. The Australian spent several minutes regaining his composure but was fit to continue on 91.
Clarke never looked content and had scraped together seven when Anderson brought one back in to him, hitting off stump having flicked the front pad.
Watson did not allow that to distract him and reached three figures with a clip for three. His elation would have been short lived had Cook held a simple catch off Anderson with the opener on 104, but the skipper grassed it.
Kerrigan was given one over before tea, but a looping beamer at Steve Smith suggested the nerves had yet to dissipate.
The first hour of the evening session confirmed Australia’s position of strength, with 57 runs in 16 overs. Watson cruised past 150 in that time, with Smith finding his feet, too.
Woakes and Kerrigan drifted in and out as Cook attempted to keep them involved and the former thought he had Watson lbw late in the day only to see the decision overturned by DRS.
Watson’s demise came three overs before the end of play, Broad enticing a full-blooded hook and Pietersen diving low to hold a remarkable catch in the deep.
MAN OF THE DAY
Shane Watson. Much-maligned for not being able to convert good starts into centuries, Australia’s No 3 showed his class as he notched his first century in 25 Tests. The 32-year-old had only reached three figures twice in 45 Tests but scored his first ton in almost three years with some classy shots. He also hit 26 boundaries in his best-ever Test innings of 176 before being caught in the deep by Kevin Pietersen.
SHOT OF THE DAY
Shane Watson off Graeme Swann. Among his plethora of fours against debutants Chris Woakes and Simon Kerrigan, Watson sent Swann back over his head for a big six.
BALL OF THE DAY
Stuart Broad to Shane Watson. During a spell of fierce short bowling from the Vauxhall End, a bouncer by Broad struck Watson a nasty blow between neck and jaw. The Australian spent several minutes regaining his composure but was fit to continue on 91, showing good composure to not let the incident rattle him.
SHOCK OF THE DAY
England Team selection. With Chris Tremlett vying for a first Test start in 18 months, and Steven Finn also waiting in the wings, it would have come as a big surprise to many to see Woakes and Kerrigan handed their Test debuts.
STAT OF THE DAY
James Anderson’s two for 52 moved him ahead of Bob Willis into second place in England’s all-time Test wicket-taker list. The Lancastrian now has 326 wickets, with only Sir Ian Botham ahead of him.
TWEET OF THE DAY
‘Great aggression and Hostility from @StuartBroad8 .. How England could do with Tremlett or Finn to carry on the attack??? #Ashes’ – ex-England captain Michael Vaughan suggests the hosts should have named a more experienced attack.