Australia look stunned. That’s the only way to describe the vacant husks that have replaced the real Australian side. Over five days at The Wanderers, they look like eleven men whose minds are so far from their task that they may as well be on Mars.
Tim Paine has barely been back in the side a few months, and now the captaincy has been thrust upon him in his 13th test match. How long he’ll hold on to the role, nobody knows, but he’s the only man trusted to lead in the wake of one of the biggest scandals to hit Australian cricket; the only one management are sure wasn’t involved.
He seems an odd choice: where Smith was loud and aggressive, Paine is considered; where Smith, faced with accusations of cheating, was glib and entitled, Paine is contrite. As the world realises just how far Australia have descended into the depths of vitriol and anger – led there by Darren Lehmann, Smith, and Warner – it turns out Paine is actually the perfect choice to take them forward.
They lose the game – and hard. Faf du Plessis grinds them into the Johannesburg earth and kicks them while they’re down. But can we blame Australia? They’re in mourning – they just saw Australian cricket, as they know it, die.
In Designated Survivor: 60 Days, Park Mu-jin, Minister for Environment, is elevated to the presidency after a disaster at the Korean National Assembly kills everyone ahead of him in the line of presidential succession. He has sixty days to stabilise the country as caretaker until a new assembly is formed. As the timer runs down, he must quickly come to grips with the moralistic demands of the job – despite the doubt of those around him – and discover the whole truth of the attack that killed so many members of the cabinet.
There are similarities between the stories of Park Mu-jin and Tim Paine. Even as the Australian public turned their backs on Smith and Warner, as the Prime Minister called for dignity and respectability to be restored to Australian cricket, there was a sense that Paine wasn’t the best man for the job, that, as the furore over ball tampering dies down, Australia are on the lookout for his replacement. So too has the whole truth about Newlands not come to light, held behind legal barricades, and when the story does break one imagines that Paine will be the one to front up to it. But in the sixteen months that he has been captain, Paine has weathered the storm to emerge as more than just a caretaker.
It hasn’t been easy. He was stripped of the ODI captaincy following a 5-0 loss to England, without a hint of gratitude for taking it on. He’s had to field constant questions over his suitability as captain in the wake of losses to Pakistan and India, whether Australia are still good enough, whether they’ve lost their bite – all with the insinuation that, if they’re not and they have, it would be his fault. To a media who so frequently want it both ways – for Australia to be respectable but still hyper-aggressive – Paine is a scapegoat-in-waiting.
In the Ashes, he’ll have to contend with an old leadership group reintegrating with his current regime. And in changing the vice-captaincy like they’re changing shirts and in insisting on giving him more than one deputy, the management hasn’t helped. But in spite of the difficulty, Paine has proven a solid and dependable leader – something that Australia arguably hasn’t had since Steve Waugh. He has shown that hard, competitive cricket isn’t about abusing the opponent; that it can be played with respect. He’s shown that cricket, for all its drama, is just a game.
Tim Paine comes across as a reserved, somewhat stoic man. Histrionics don’t come naturally to him. Off the field, he is quiet, staid, with a hint of Australian mischief. On the field he is a model professional. Yet, that belies an inner fight. He wants this – that much is clear. He may be viewed as a caretaker, someone to mind the transition, but this isn’t a transient period in his life; this is it. He may want Australia to play with dignity and respect, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t prepared to fight. Against the King of Conflict, Kohli, he came out on top – at least in the verbal jousting – and while his sledges may come across less as aggressive indictment and more polite enquiry, it’s clear that behind that calm demeanour is familiar Australian fire. Unlike some of his predecessors, he just knows when and how to use it.
As professional cricketers become more unruly both on and off the field, Tim Paine comes across as above it all. He was touted as a potential captain as early as 2010. And years in the wilderness, battling recurring injury, have not dulled the qualities that had him earmarked for leadership almost a decade ago.
And while he inherited a team in turmoil and that turmoil hasn’t abated, there are signs that, under Paine’s steady leadership, Australia are starting to surface from the instability of the past sixteen months. The Ashes, then, will be instructive. After finally securing their first test win since Newlands, against Sri Lanka, this will be their first major challenge. There’s no doubt that Newlands will be front-and-centre in the media and the fans; there’ll be sandpaper on hats and beer-fuelled sledges hurled from across the boundary, but such is the Ashes – and Paine looks ready for it.
Tim Paine’s captaincy doesn’t dazzle – there’s no tactical tenacity; no “funky” fields. Rather, he’s an admirably jobbing cricketer. He just gets the job done. We are often remembered for our faults: Smith may have won everything and scored all the runs in the world, but Newlands will remain his cricketing epitaph; while Ponting is best known for his poor captaincy rather than his World Cup triumphs; similarly, Ben Stokes might have won England a World Cup final, but Bristol will always hang over his name. Paine, tragically, likely won’t be remembered as either good or bad. Rather, as Australia try and wipe the stain of Newlands away, so too might he be discarded as little more than a warden.
He won’t be thanked for his stewardship of Australia, nor expounded next to the greats, but that doesn’t make his contribution to Australian cricket any the less. He has been through years of struggle and adversity, which prepared him to lead Australia through the same. In a period where Australia might easily have spiralled, he kept them level. And now he’s here, on the cusp of Ashes captaincy, and he has proven he was, and is, the best man for the job.