It’s a common convention at club level – following a successful spell or knock – to exhibit disappointment at “throwing it away” or “not going on with it”. Though you’ve transcended your mean output by multiple standard deviations, this outward showing of displeasure is meant to communicate your own (fictional) high standards.
Sure, you may have made your first hundred in this, the 350th innings of your life, but you wanted more. You want people to think you’re never satisfied, so ravenous you are for runs. You perfect that scowling face as you leave the field. Maybe close the gate a little more firmly than is civil. Mutter an expletive or something about a being “soft” as you pass your teammates, all of whom are saying something to the effect of “well batted”.
Privately you’re absolutely elated, of course.
This ritual came to mind in the wake of David Warner’s recent record-breaking knock. Zoom out a little, and there’s something of the permanently unsatisfied clubbie in Australia’s cricketing body politic. Everywhere you looked, it seemed more was required. More time for the record. More life in the wicket. More runs in England. More contrition for his role in the sandpaper scandal. More respect for Bradman. Whatever he did, it didn’t seem enough. Though somewhere, surely, is collective satisfaction that the nation possesses an opener capable of making a triple century. But while Warner polarises more than most, this “not enough” attitude extends beyond him.
Late into last week’s Test, with the game starved of scoreboard drama and its storytellers stretched for anything interesting to say, Ian Chappell saved the day with the contention that Steve Smith may have been “white-anting” Tim Paine’s captaincy through subtle field changes and so on. It was rich in context and theme: Smith, deposed but just about redeemed, easing his way back into his natural position, even if subconsciously; Paine, to some a sort of temporary skipper, holding the fort while the nation went through its seven stages of grieving, before the natural order resumes.
The contention was comfortably dismissed via the official channels. Of course, Smith was merely “helping” Paine, in much the same way MS Dhoni helped Virat Kohli, or the way Warner, as vice-captain, used to “help” Smith.
But possibly missed in the confected spectacle was the almost unnerving ease with which incumbent captain Tim Paine dealt with the claim. Cricket’s unique connection to possession – where opportunities to play protagonist are so fleeting that focused greed becomes a precondition to survive – makes Paine’s Partridge shrug to all of this even more impressive. And yet as we round the bend into Paine’s playing twilight, there still feels an air of the transitory about his time at Australian cricket’s helm.
Such is the rigidity with which Australian cricket approaches its captaincy appointees (ie a prolific batsman who might start a dynasty), placing Paine’s contribution feels unusual. For that reason alone, like so many other events in the past two years, there is a sense of asterisk about the whole thing.
But to take this route would be grossly unfair, not to mention inaccurate. In Paine, Australian cricket has managed to find a popular, stabilising force at a time when it most needed it. He is agreeable to the public, the administration, and “the boys”. The degree of difficulty in attaining all three cannot be understated, and that’s just the optics.
He has taken the captaincy mantle with Australia at their lowest batting ebb in modern times, and with Smith and Warner now returned, presides over a unit that feels near impregnable at home and finally competitive beyond. While a discerning public may occasionally peep the devil within, their on-field behaviour has improved immeasurably. For the first time in 20 years, they were able to contest a series in England and raise the urn at the series end. This is what excellent leadership looks like.
At age 35, many rate him the best wicketkeeper in the world. He averages two less with Brad Haddin with the bat. Four more than Ian Healy. Nine more than Peter Nevill. And yet, we seem to ask: are there enough runs? What about the first-class hundreds situation? Alex Carey: he hit them well in the World Cup, didn’t he?
And underneath that, there’s a prevailing sense that the captaincy is indelibly Smith’s. That the prolific, dynastic prodigy must always have the reins, that normal service can, and will, resume. But Paine has taught us that when it comes to the Australian captaincy, perhaps normal service isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and that the less travelled road can make the difference. Although we like to complain, when it comes to Paine we might consider being a little more public in our satisfaction.