Paine falls short in middle order but greatness looms
Australia captain may not boast impressive statistics, yet his value goes beyond numbers Look to the fact that he hangs around and has no qualms about someone else taking centre stage
Tim Paine is not a Test-calibre batter. He is the kind of player who, when you shout, “Wicket after lunch, lads,” keeps this tiresome refrain alive. For the simple fact that it is true. In the first over after lunch on day two, he was gone, prodding on nine to Stuart Broad, safely into the hands of Jason Roy at second slip. Scratch that, he was dropped. And the reprieve allowed Paine to recover, reset and apply himself once more. Just like you, on a Saturday on the common. “Dig in,” you murmur under your breath.
With Sam Curran dropping Paine at mid-on later in the afternoon session, England would have to wait until the next period off the field, a pause for consumption, tea this time. First ball back out and Paine was gone for 58, another nick and Jonny Bairstow held on. Only Australia had put on 123 runs in the interim, Steve Smith had another landmark and Australia were closing in on 400. Paine had been the junior partner in a stand of 145 runs but hey, what did he care, he is an Australia captain on the cusp of retaining the Ashes away from home. Company shared with only an exalted few.
Paine’s innings was a curious sight. Fail again and the questions would start, Smith’s recoronation merely a matter of time. And with Smith’s throne restored, Paine, surely, merits no place in the side. But his contribution lingers.
In the high-definition era of audio technology, these days we are afforded one of the most visceral insights into a team’s unfolding dynamic. Or unravelling, in England’s case. Because forget numbers, it is the quantity and calibre of a team’s sledging which is as accurate a measure as any of a performance. And the stump mics, well, they are almost Orwellian in their overarching reach.
“He ran right down the middle there, Kumar, about four strides,” we heard Bairstow cry from behind the stumps, trying to break the virtuous veneer of Paine, accusing him of underhand tactics. Bairstow was chirpy. Paine was fair game.
The Australia captain was averaging under 13 in the series while at the opposite end, Smith, stripped of that role, was steamrollering on at more than 10 times that number. Here was a chance to play on Paine’s mind.
Bairstow’s tactics soon evolved. “I bet you can’t wait for that salmon fillet,” tried the Yorkshireman instead, 20 minutes before lunch. But Paine played the foil to Smith’s unorthodox lunge. Soon the sledging became more searching, adopting a desperate tone. “Catch!” cried Bairstow as Paine blocked the ball, rolling along the floor back to the bowler.
Despite this technological advance, Paine is a figure for the ages and his performance this Ashes reflects that. To reiterate, Paine is no Test-calibre batter. But that does not mean Paine is no Test-calibre player.
He is a specialist keeper of the old-school sense, orthodox, banished to the harsh hinterlands of domestic first-class cricket after a brief foray into the Test arena.
His Test recall came almost a decade later, for his glovemanship first, any batting a useful second. And this all before we knew of the disaster that was to unfold at Newlands. He had done his time. A mature, experienced sage, hoped Australia’s selectors.
Now, unexpectedly as captain, but no less as keeper and partnership-maker, that is what he has become. The numbers do not lie, but maybe we are not looking at the right numbers. Avert your gaze from the average of 19 in his past 10 Tests, or that he has no Test century. Look instead to the fact that he hangs around, digs in and has no qualms about someone else taking centre stage.
He did it in his captaincy duties, after the Headingley miracle. Sanguine, hiding what must have been some degree of devastation, with a chuckle and a quip, he knew it was Ben Stokes’s day. So, he said as much. Let him have it, offered Paine, you win the battle, but we will still win the war.
So, here we are, at the close of play on day two and Paine has played the kind of innings we appreciated before all statistics known to man were available at our fingertips. The template is simple, aim for Mike Brearley to Smith’s Ian Botham-style feats.
By 3.15pm, Paine, with Smith doing his own, otherworldly things, had the measure of Broad. Self-assurance oozed as Paine carved one to the boundary. There was a time in Australia’s innings when a roar was meant for Smith and Smith alone, but by now Paine was more than a footnote. Smith dominated, but Paine held his own.
The measure of a man, a captain, is not how he thrives on success, but how he fares when the attention is not his, how he hides the human envy and does his job, no more, no less and for who knows how much longer.
Because whether you think it deserved or not, Paine, stood aside from the spotlight, is on the cusp of Ashes greatness.
Reprieve: Australia captain Tim Paine looks on as he is dropped by Sam Curran