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Australia v India

‘Statesman’ mask slips as Tim Paine nears the end of his tenure

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Ben Gardner on a finish to a classic Test match that threatened to boil over, and the fate of the captain who was more guilty than most for the bad blood.

If today showed just how enthralling and visceral Test cricket can be, then the events of the previous two demonstrated how insignificant it really is when set against the horrors of the modern world. Whatever your view on the crowd incidents that have scarred this game, two things are indisputable: that what transpired was ugly, and that India are hurting.

For all that sports pits two countries against each other, Australia owe the touring Indians a debt for the sacrifice they’ve made. After two months in various bubbles away from their homes and families, with most having just spent longer at the IPL in the UAE, they arrived in Sydney already depleted by a succession of injuries, a list which increased by the day as the third Test unfolded. Siraj, who copped the brunt of the heckling, had given up the chance to be at his father’s funeral to be there.

Here, then, was a chance for Australia, led by Tim Paine, to show that their much-vaunted softer approach could survive the cauldron of a high-intensity finish, to put away the barbs and sledges for just one day, in solidarity with a team wounded by Australian fans largely following the example of national teams past, and to send a message that the new Australian way was to play hard, sure, but most of all fair.

Instead, Paine’s side were more badly behaved than they have been in a long while, perhaps since that ill-fated series in South Africa that brought about the regime change in the first place, and it was the captain who led the way.

The niggle and needle continued throughout most of the day, with Australia showing they’re at least more inventive now if not any better. Steve Smith did some strange scuffing of the crease that was perhaps more benign than it looked, the appealing bordered on excessive, Matthew Wade semi-squared up to Ravichandran Ashwin before pinging Hanuma Vihari with a couple of errant throws, and Paine complained loudly of time-wasting as the sixth-wicket pair exchanged a chest guard between overs.

If that might all be par for the course for a narrow Test match reaching its climax, then an exchange between Ashwin and Paine, which saw the former back away before facing up multiple times as the Australian gloveman kept talking as the bowler began his run-up, was properly unpleasant.

While Ashwin bit back, it was Paine who veered into the personal – “At least my teammates like me, dickhead” – and Paine who kept it going. The irony of the ‘dickhead’ line is two-fold. First, it echoes a similar comment made about Virat Kohli on India’s last tour of Australia, when Paine’s stock reached a peak it will surely never get close to again. Already embraced as the saviour of Australian cricket’s soul, a series of mild remarks within ear shot of stump mic had him held up as the Australian Michael McIntyre as well. But this time, no one was laughing. The second irony is that, while Paine’s teammates might like him, judging by the immediate reaction online, they seem like the only ones. A half-hearted pat on the back after shaking hands on a draw won’t undo the damage done.

Already fined for dissent at an umpiring decision, with Paine increasingly crotchety about DRS as the series has progressed, this image issue is more a problem for him than it would be for other international captains, since his standing as a statesman, largely earned on account of a hagiographic docu-series and some pre-match handshakes and dodgy sloganeering early on in his tenure, has shielded scrutiny of his wider record, both as a leader and a player. When he took over as Australia captain, perception was more important than results, with a public disenfranchised and sponsors pulling out, afraid of being tarnished by association with a misbehaving team. The actions of Paine and his side today will at least test how much the passing of time has done to wash away those memories.

Lose at the Gabba, and his win/loss record will be the worst of any Australia captain since Kim Hughes, and while draws in the Ashes in England and a Test match in the UAE were held up as triumphs, he still hasn’t won a series overseas and led the first-ever Australia side to lose against India at home. He’ll be 37 by the time the Ashes start, averages just 28 with the bat as captain, and dropped three catches on day five, the last of which was a hot-headed dive in the aftermath of the Ashwin argument to disrupt a dolly for first slip. Australia have an all-time great bowling line-up, an all-time great batsman in Steve Smith and a pretender to the throne in Marnus Labuschagne. It wasn’t just Glenn McGrath predicting a whitewash in the lead-up this time, and since the start of the series, India have become significantly weakened. Fail to reclaim the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and, by rights, his position should be untenable.

Perhaps that’s why the mask fell so dramatically at the denouement today. He showed himself at Headingley to be an impetuous, frantic captain under pressure and this was a situation more fraught with peril for himself, if not for the team. Maybe the old Australian method, that the way to gain an edge in a tight contest is by belittling the opposition, took back over in his desperation not just to win, but to cling onto his job. The thing is though, that that line of attack was maybe never needed. Maybe the great Australian side always won because they were packed with great cricketers. You’ll never sledge your way to five wickets in an hour.

So Paine’s future might rest on the Gabba, and only a win might be enough to extend his stay. Bringing back the bad behaviour probably won’t make a difference either way, but it could decide whether Paine’s already fraying reputation ends in tatters by the time he’s done.

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