The Ashes 2019: Tim Paine is not our problem, but you might be

 

It has only taken a loss against the odds at Headingley for some old familiar cries to ring out across the land. Or at least the land as represented by social media, and some of our ever-diminishing media companies. Sack the Captain! We’re a bunch of chokers!

 

Now far be it for me to disagree with such extraordinarily sophisticated and nuanced analysis. And slap my wrist if it should occur to me for even a second that some of my fellow Australians handle gratification denied about as well as a hungry toddler handles the denial of mummy’s milk. After all, in this Australia of 2019, what better represents our core values than the right to have a whinge. But in the declining hope that most of us still value memory and context more than the average mosquito, let me offer a few observations on our current situation.

 

Those now calling for Tim Paine to be sacked as captain might just choose to recall how he came to be Australian skipper in the first place. During the Durban test of 2018 Australia suffered a humiliating collapse of cricketing and ethical leadership. Subsequent investigation has deemed the source of failure to extend beyond the dressing room, to the highest echelons of Cricket Australia. Cricket Australia professed to accept those findings. People were sacked as a result. Others suspended.

 

Essentially, Tim Paine became Australian captain because he was the only adult left in the dressing room at the time deemed likely not to crash the car completely off the road. He was doubtless as surprised at this turn of events as anyone else.

 

Since acquiring this unsought honour, Paine has attempted to navigate a demoralised Australian team, minus its two best batsmen, through the subsequent wreckage. He has produced a series loss against a powerful Indian side, a win against Sri Lanka, and currently sits at a test apiece against England, on their home pitches (where we haven’t won since 2001).

 

At all times in this period, he has maintained a calm, open manner, spoken honestly about the challenges the team has faced, and demonstrated no small amount of humour and grace in the process. In addition, on this tour he has had to manage the reintegration of the three players who were suspended for the Durban fiasco. To the extent that Cricket Australia can lay any claim to having made cultural change, Tim Paine would seem to personify the majority of that change.

 

None of this is to argue that Day 4 in Headingley was Paine’s finest as captain. We lost discipline with the second new ball. Our tactical approach to that fateful last wicket stand could certainly be questioned. And he inexplicably wasted our final DRS review. But we also did a lot right up to that final hour.

 

Let’s be honest, when England were nine wickets down the Australian dressing room was Genius Central. The policy of selection rotation for the fast bowlers was a masterstroke. Then we realised in that last hour that the situation really required one of those Mitch Starc swinging yorkers – just like the one that got Stokes in the World Cup.

 

Tim Paine is not a protected species. At some stage, he won’t be able to justify his place on playing grounds. But it’s hard to see that moment as being now. He is still a keeper who misses few chances. Nathan Lyon would prefer him up to the stumps every day in preference to Matt Wade. And for those pushing Alex Carey, let’s just remember Paine averages 31 at test level. Carey only averages that at first class level. Carey certainly looked good in the white ball stuff, but just ask Jason Roy what white ball reputations count for in test cricket.

 

More pertinently still, with this series in the balance, Australia needs the best leadership it can muster. It needs it right now. No eligible player in the squad is a remotely feasible alternative.

 

But since we have headed down the path of cultural examination, surely Headingley raises bigger questions than Tim Paine. Much bigger. What is it about Australian cricket that makes us such devastating front runners, but sees us so consistently fall short in the close ones?

 

I thank fellow Almanacker Damian Balasonne for the following list:

1 run vs WI Adelaide 92/93
2 runs vs Eng Edgbaston 2005
3 runs vs Eng Melbourne 82/83
5 runs vs SAF Sydney 93/94
7 runs vs NZ Hobart 2011/12
1 wicket vs England Headingly 2019 (73 added for last wicket)
1 wicket vs Pakistan Karachi 1994 (57 runs added for last wicket, winning runs coming after a missed stumping by Ian Healy)
1 wicket vs India Mohali 2010
1 wicket vs West Indies Barbados 1999 (at one stage WI 8/248 chasing 311, Lara masterclass)
2 wickets vs India Chennai 2001 (after losing the previous test where we enforced the followed on)
13 runs vs India Mumbai 2004 (chasing 107 on a turner in a dead rubber)
14 runs vs England Trent Bridge 2013
19 runs vs England The Oval 1997 (chasing 124 in another dead rubber)
18 runs vs England Headingly 1981 (chasing 130, another follow on game, Botham’s Ashes)
29 runs vs England Edgbaston 1981 (the very next test)

 

This list only covers close Australian losses back to 1981. The record suggests that when it’s tight, you shouldn’t be backing us with stolen money. And that applies to several generations of Australian cricketers.

 

This record doesn’t sit very comfortably with our preferred cricket self-mythology. Curiously, in an age when Cricket Australia has funded an inquiry into almost everything, I can’t recall any meaningful examination of this pronounced tendency. And spare the clichés about choking. That’s a lazy label used by people who opt to abuse rather than examine.

 

I’m prepared to offer a theory on this free of charge. It’s hardly an unknown thought. The Grade Cricketer lads have been dining off it for a couple of years now. I think the reason we’ve been so frequently poor in tight finishes is that the top tiers of Australian cricket have come to suffer from being in thrall to a peculiarly brittle idea of masculinity. The aggressive, anti-authoritarian attitudes of the Chappell-Lillee-Marsh era morphed into something altogether less attractive. We convinced ourselves that being good wasn’t enough. That we also had to be bullies and arseholes into the bargain. And bullies are almost always shown to be brittle underneath.

 

We’d never use those words, of course. That would be bad for the brand. Instead, we couched it in phrases like “mental disintegration”, or “tough and hard”. We invented a mythical line for the purpose, and spoke solemnly of staying on the right side of it, like it was wisdom handed down by Sun Tzu. This thinking has insinuated itself for years. We hoped Darren Lehmann’s dressing room might have been the culmination, but who really knows? In any case, he didn’t invent this thinking, he merely passed on a tradition.

 

The shame has always been that we really have won so often because we were good.  We didn’t need this unseemly mayonnaise on top. Though we repeatedly put poor results down to the fact that we had ‘gone soft’, this thinking rarely did us any favours. I reckon it makes an unstable crutch when times are tight. It inclines us to crash-through-or-crash tactics. And I think it ultimately encourages our opposition. Even at club level, when  I heard an opponent try to verbally muscle-up, my first thought was what were they worried about? And test cricketers are light years ahead of me in reading the play.

 

Of course, we aren’t the only country to behave like arseholes on a cricket field. Every country has its moments. But I can’t think of another national team that has made such thinking so integral to their identity.

 

The hope was that the abject embarrassment of Durban would be the catalyst for change on this front. But true cultural change is more easily spoken of than lived. And Australian cricket fans have their part to play, if anything meaningful is to occur. Which is why much of the reaction to the Headingley loss has been disappointing, if not infuriating. Are we determined not to learn anything?

 

The current reality is that we are one-all in a series where we hold the Ashes. One more victory will secure our main objective, and mark a major improvement on recent English tours. Let all those who have reflexively started moaning about Headingley ’81 wallow in their own irony free self-perpetuation. The Australian team is hopefully insulated from this nonsense. Smart leaders will help ensure that.

 

Which is why Tim Paine gave me heart in the immediate aftermath of defeat. Minutes after what must surely have been his biggest cricket disappointment, he was prepared to own his mistakes, leave the past as just that, and look to what was required from here. Not one word has been heard about ‘toughening up”. That’s my idea of leadership.

 

It is of course entirely possible that Australia could go tits up from here. But it took a super human effort from Ben Stokes to drag England across the Headingley line. And we have a couple of  potentially handy additions by the name of Smith and Starc to factor in.

 

We could possibly be watching one of the great series. We claim to be a nation that loves cricket. It would be nice if we could just enjoy the spectacle that awaits, without indulging all the negative baggage of the past. Let England beat us if they can. Let’s not beat ourselves.

 

 

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About John Butler

John Butler has fled the World's Most Liveable Car Park and now breathes the rarefied air of the Ballarat Plateau. For his sins, he is in his 40th year as a Carlton member.

Comments

  1. Ian Hauser says

    Ah, the voice of objectivity and steady, sound reason in the midst of the comparatively hyperbolic, asinine bleatings of the know-all catastrophists. Well said, JB, well said!

  2. Spot on JB. I cannot believe that so many are ascribing blame for one of the great individual performances in cricket history to the supposed faults and blunders of the opposing captain. As much as I sense Ben Stokes may replicate Ian Botham vintage 1981 and drag an ordinary England outfit across the line in a remarkable series, I would love to see Australia dust themselves off and play out a dull, regimented, tactically astute win against an inferior opponent and shut up these indignant nuffies once and for all. It would be the perfect result to affirm your excellent paragraph about Tim Paine’s leadership.
    Always enjoy your posts JB. Thanks.

  3. Fair call JB. The series may well come down to who can keep their head when all about are losing theirs. Not so much mental disintegration as mental exhaustion.

  4. John Butler says

    Thanks gents.

    I know I’m preaching to the choir here at the Almanac, but geez. After Durban we all claimed to be appalled and spent the next 18 months demanding the team be better blokes. Then look at how we handle this loss. And we used to say Americans didn’t get irony.

    Perhaps cultural change best begins at home?

  5. Well said, JB.

    Unfortunately Paine has lost form with the gloves, hitherto his most unimpeachable skill.
    But the trollers are not viewing Paine through the rock-bottom prism which was the sandpaper fiasco. He continues to be the right man for the time.

  6. John Butler says

    Smokie, I’d bet Lyon would take Paine on a bad day up at the stumps rather than Wade any day.

    And I don’t see an alternative captain at present. Ussie is likely to be preoccupied with the opening position, if he’s picked at all.

    But it does raise the question down the line, who is the next long term skipper? I think Smith has amply demonstrated he’s best left to just bat.

    So much still to be determined. Interesting times.

  7. JB, interesting times indeed. Ian Chappell has long said the team (best 11) should be select first and then the captain, from them, next. Using that theory, Carey is the keeper. However, which of the others becomes captain. Obviously neither Smith or Warner don’t qualify (Warner never ever).

    For the time being, I cannot see how the selectors have any other option but to retain Paine in the captaincy. Off the field he has done a superb job, pity he hasn’t always been as good on the field. Let’s hope he brings an A grade performance to the remaining tests.He certainly has the capability of doing so.

    I fear Mrs Fisho is going to have a tough time getting me to come to bed when the tests resume.

  8. John Butler says

    Fisho, we’re all in for some long nights, I suspect. Let’s hope they’re worth it. :)

  9. Luke Reynolds says

    Magnificently well put JB. Agree with every word.

    The full worth of what Paine has instilled into the highest tier of Australian cricket will take years to be appreciated. Coming from the lowest of lowest lows in South Africa.

    Carey is a fine cricketer. Had a great World Cup. His ODI position wasn’t exactly secure before the World Cup. He was dropped from our most recent T20 Internationals (Peter Handscomb is our incumbent T20 keeper). And while a very good state cricketer, hasn’t belted the door down. His time will come and should he be good enough (which I think he will be), 70 odd Tests beckon, plus at least another World Cup for AT Carey.

    Australian cricket desperately needs Paine to remain Test captain until the end of the upcoming home Test summer. I love Daniel Brettig’s work but totally disagree with his article on Cricinfo pushing for Khawaja as a possible captain. Ussie is hanging on to his position by the skin of his teeth and regularly portrays as a sullen figure on the field. Head is still establishing himself and I fear for him if he is made captain soon.

    The best course is to for Paine to captain at home against Pakistan and New Zealand. By the time Australia play it’s next Test after that, (Bangladesh in July 2020 if we honour that commitment, not our strong point against the Bangas), Smith’s ban will be over and Head will be more established or not in the team. Either way we will have more options and a more considered decision can be made.

  10. Thanks Luke.

    I don’t think we should ever go back to Steve Smith as skip. Not just for ethical reasons, either.

    I think he has shown that whilst he’s a complete cricket obsessive, he’s a bit unworldy in other regards. It didn’t add up to being a great leader in general.

    The longer term leadership question is one that will be lingering for quite a while.

  11. Yvette Wroby says

    Hi John and Almanackers,
    great discussion from a worthy article I wish all the press and supporters of male cricket would read. I have enjoyed this series and can’t wait for tomorrow. It’s unpredictable which makes for great games and moments, and we all need to park our ‘desire’ and let the team do the work for us. It’s them who are out there trying their best, and we need to support them and let them get on with their job. All we contribute is our want and interest. Park it and see what happens.

  12. John Butler says

    In complete agreement there, Yvette. Enjoy the spectacle.

    Off to the VFLW finals on the weekend?

    Thanks

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