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The inspiring Tim Paine story

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Tim_Paine_Australia_CricketDespite all that Australian cricket has gone through in the past few weeks, you will find a moving story hidden in the mess: that of their 46th Test captain Tim Paine. Once forgotten, at one point almost retiring from national duty, Paine today finds himself in charge of restoring this Australian cricket team.

In 2010, a 25-year-old Tasmanian donned the Baggy Green for the first time when he was picked for the series against Pakistan held in neutral England. He made his Test debut in the same match as his future captain, Steven Smith. Ironically, Paine batted above Smith in that Test at Lord's. While Smith was roped in as the leg spinner, Paine was the wicketkeeper-batsman. In the two Tests Paine played that series, he scored 104 runs at a not-so-impressive average of 26.

Paine was included in Australia's squad for the two-Test, Border-Gavaskar series in India the same year. He ended as the third highest run-scorer for Australia, behind Shane Watson and Ricky Ponting, with 183 runs at an average of 45.

Most Australian glovemen bat down the order and Paine was no exception. In his first two tours, he fared well enough with both bat and gloves. Many saw him as Australia's future go-to keeper across formats. Unfortunately, he broke his right index finger batting in the Australian Cricketers' Association "All-Stars" T20 game on November 21, 2010. He underwent a surgery where a plate was inserted in his finger. But this was not the end; later, his finger broke again and the plate loosened.

If you look at his finger today, it is still swollen and studded with the marks of five operations. The last two surgeries required bones to be taken from his wrist and his hip to finally put his finger together.

In the meantime, Matthew Wade had swooped in and made himself the keeper. Although Paine was nowhere near the national side, he was just grateful to still be playing cricket. He knew he had fallen a long way behind; only persistence and patience could take him back to where he had left off in 2010.

He did make a comeback in Australia's domestic circuit but never managed to deliver as a batsman. Over the past four Australian domestic seasons, he averaged around 19 but he was acknowledged as one of the best keepers in the country. These days, teams look to pick a keeper who can bat fluently as well. With his form, Paine was not making the cutoff. In the beginning of 2017, Paine had made up his mind to retire from First-Class cricket. He was set to move to Melbourne to take up a job with Kookaburra, the cricket equipment manufacturer.

Then, Tasmania knocked on his door with a lifeline. They extended Paine's contract but he was not their first choice wicketkeeper. Moreover, he did not even play the first two matches of the 2017/18 Sheffield Shield. When he was finally selected, he made the most of the opportunity. He was then picked to play in the warm-up matches before the Ashes. In one week he scored two half-centuries - 52 for Cricket Australia XI against England and an unbeaten 71 against Victoria in a Shield match.

Keeping in mind Wade's blunders behind the wicket and poor form with the bat, Australian selectors decided to try an unconventional choice. In a stunning turnaround of fortune, they reinstated Paine as Australia's wicketkeeper for the 2017/18 Ashes at home. Answering critics who complained about his inclusion, Paine delivered with both bat and gloves. At the end of a spectacular 4-0 series win, Paine averaged 48 and had made 26 dismissals behind the wickets - 25 catches and one sensational stumping of Moeen Ali at the Gabba.

Fast forward to South Africa. Australia landed in the Rainbow nation aiming to continue their winning streak in Test series on South African soil. South Africa had not defeated Australia in a Test series at home since their re-admission. Needless controversies struck one Test after another before the massive incident that left the Australian team scarred.

On the third day of the Cape Town Test, Australia's Cameron Bancroft was caught red-handed, on the big screen, tampering the ball. Later on in the press conference, Bancroft and Australian Captain Smith confessed to the tampering accusations.

In the wake of the shameful incident, Paine was asked to lead Australia in the remainder of the Test, which Australia eventually lost. South Africa took a 2-1 lead in the series. Ahead of the final Test in Johannesburg, Smith and his deputy David Warner were banned for a year, and Bancroft for nine months. Australia had a new skipper. Tim Paine, the same man who had been nowhere near getting in the team a few months back.  

Bringing some perspective to the situation, Paine was put in charge of a team without its best batsmen and best bowler (Mitchell Starc was ruled out because of stress fracture). The team's coach Darren Lehmann had resigned. In other words, this was the most emotionally draining period for the Aussies since the death of Phil Hughes in 2014. Suddenly, there was no motivation, no stars and no extraordinary talent.

The extraordinary story of the Johannesburg Test was their new skipper Tim Paine, who was inches away from retirement in 2017 and was now the regular wicketkeeper, an Ashes winner and Australia's 46th Test captain. In the chaos that followed the Ball Tampering incident, Australia needed a fresh start and a new driving force to pull them out from their lowest point.

Paine began his captaincy by introducing a tradition not seen before in cricket. To negate the bitterness which had overshadowed the incredible cricket in the series, Paine thought it would be a great idea if both teams shook hands after the national anthem.

“I’ve been watching [sports channel] SuperSport this week and they’ve had the soccer on and I notice they do that every game and I thought cricket is the gentleman’s game,” Paine said.

If you go back to the 1980s, Australia had lost three superstars at one go - Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee - to retirement. They had chosen Allan Border as their leader. The gamble worked as Border went on to become their best batsman and one of the best brains cricket had seen, capable of singlehandedly turning a match around. Paine is not on the same level of batting as Border as a batsman, but he certainly possesses the potential to become an able captain.

In the final Test, South Africa piled up 488 runs in the first innings. That was followed by the pace duo of Kagiso Rabada and Vernon Philander reducing Australia to 90 for 4. Morne Morkel, who was playing his final Test, dismissed Mitchell Marsh to leave Aussies shattered. It was Paine's golden chance to step up and be the captain leading from the front.

The whole team was mentally exhausted, but Paine had the extra pressure of captaining the side. Despite all that, he knew it was his responsibility to pull Australia out of that hole no matter what. And he did that.

Just when South Africa thought they would mop up Australia's innings on day three, Paine and Pat Cummins put up 99 runs for the seventh wicket, Australia’s biggest partnership of the series. It was a really special innings from Paine, more because he batted for over three hours with a hairline fracture in his right thumb as he marched to his fourth Test half-century and frustrated the hell out of the hosts. A few runs shy of fifty, he smashed Keshav Maharaj for a six over mid-wicket. That shot was his knock personified - fearless and elegant.

Though Australia eventually suffered their second biggest Test loss in terms of number of runs, Paine opened a new chapter in his life and Australian cricket. From almost retiring to an Ashes winner to Australian Test captain, Paine has every reason to be proud of himself.

 

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