The Australian team had failed that litmus test years ago, not just in Cape Town. Leadership from boards and executives was loose and unconstrained by knowledge of ethics or history or much else. Paine has done a splendid job, his ability to remain competitive and keep the behaviour of the national team within the “spirit of cricket” framework has delighted close followers and casual fans.
The Ashes have been retained but not won, thanks mainly to the batting genius of the banned captain Steve Smith, but nonetheless a team performance that was well below par. Given that Smith is not formally allowed to retake the reins until March (yet another fascinating decision to make), do we pick Paine first and follow with the next 10 as the English have done for 140 years, or do we go with the “Australian way”?
Let’s look at who might be in the starting team against a robust Pakistan at The Gabba and see what other candidates there may be for players who lead versus leaders who play.
Pakistan will bring some very handy seam bowling in Mohammed Abbas, Mohammad Amir, Imran Khan (no, not the nation’s President) to a pitch that suits them. Chief selector and coach Misbah Ul-Haq would have made some shrewd selections with the bounce and seam in Brisbane very much in mind. Fortunately the home grown and sewn Kookaburra balls will be used rather than the dancing Duke, but still day one at the Gabba will bring a challenge to both edges.
David Warner, paralysed by Broad and his Duke in England is back to the touch that sees a career mid 40s average and over 60 at home. No matter how thick your skin might be to name calling and booing, playing to cheers rather than jeers has got to bring a clearer mind.
His opening partner may be a Queenslander but not Matthew Renshaw whose early Shield form has been woeful. Joe Burns has been consistent without being brilliant but he has been doing battle at the Gabba and still averaging 40 this year. He made 180 in his last Test. Pencil Joe in for the right/left combination.
Runs made at the Junction Oval probably need a discount and although Marcus Harris is averaging 53 his one century was made in the run-a-thon in round one where 12 wickets fell for over 1200 runs.
Likewise, tyro Will Pucovski made 123 in that game but only has 199 all up – including his last three digs in single figures. Is it time to gamble on potential over performance? Perhaps that has been the major error made by selectors in recent years. Maybe a new selection panel can return to a rational, achievement-based policy.
Travis Head, so bizarrely dropped for the final Ashes Test (which Australia lost), has been battling a bit too, although a fine 109 last week at home has lifted his run total to 201 at 40.
Usman Khawaja presents the ultimate conundrum. He averages almost 70 in home Test matches, was well out of sorts in England, has made a grand total of 59 runs in five Shield innings this summer and the first Test is on his home ground … hmmm, that is about as much contradictory evidence as there is for putting warning signs before radar traps. I might leave that one until after this fourth round of Shield games and cross my fingers that he makes a couple of scores.
Matthew Wade continues to make tough runs in bowler friendly conditions at Bellerive. He has become one of the first picked. Marnus Labuschagne, Smith and Wade are the bankers these days.
The bolter could have been ex-Blue now Vic Nic Maddinson, who is averaging almost 80 this year (224 gets the Junction Oval discount of course, but double tons are a rare beast in modern Sheffield Shield). Given a premature Test berth against South Africa three years ago, he was firming as a selection for this summer, but has since withdrawn from the upcoming Australia A match against Pakistan to deal with mental health issues, effectively ruling himself out of consideration.
That may aid Pucovski’s hopes, who may well be a serious Test cricketer one day, but needs to make some consistent scores when the going is tough.
The shallow batting depth is not mirrored in the bowling. The attack picks itself. The talk here is of who to leave out rather than where to find genuine Test players. Starc, Cummins, Hazlewood, Lyon, Pattinson are easily picked. The Australia A match on Perth Stadium against Pakistan will be a high quality contest with the best of the rest plying their credentials.
Pat Cummins as the vice captain is a candidate for the higher post if we follow the “Australian model”. There have been both successful bowling captains and successful captains whose cricket skill didn’t have them in the best XI.
Mike Brearley, a gentleman, is the prime exemplar having averaged 23 but had a 17-4 win-loss as captain, corralling the erratic talents of Ian Botham as he went. A degree in psychology can be an advantage when dealing with recalcitrant players.
Paine may not have Brearley’s educational imprimatur but he certainly is an outstanding wicketkeeper. But is he the best ‘keeper/batsmen on show? Maybe not, but perhaps if he has one more summer of leadership the contenders may learn from him.
Alex Carey captains Australia A in Perth, a sure pointer to Paine’s successor with the gloves, but surely Carey’s credentials to be the No.1 skipper must follow a dedicated time in the Test team. Performance over potential.
So, Paine, who 18 months ago was not just an unlikely national captain but unlikely to be playing for his state at all, gets both rewarded for his leadership and asked to show how it’s done to the next candidates. Smith reunited with the ‘c’? Cummins elevated? Carey before his due?
All in good time, but we need to beat Pakistan first, and that won’t be easy.
Geoff Lawson is a cricket columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.