‘I was trying to be Australian captain rather than being myself’

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  • Daniel BrettigAssistant editor, ESPNcricinfo

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      Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel’s chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth – a rare Australian victory that summer.

Tim Paine thought he was having a pretty good morning, as he looked out across a vacant Wrigley Field in Chicago, home to the 2016 World Series-winning Cubs. Australia’s Test captain was there with a Cricket Australia delegation in August to learn about the systems and habits of one of the world’s most revered sporting clubs.

The schedule called for a guided tour of the venerable stadium, before the group met members of the Cubs’ front-office staff ahead of watching that afternoon’s game together. But as tour began to break up, Paine received a tap on the shoulder from a former Cubs catcher, John Baker. “He said, ‘You don’t want to go with them, you want to come down with us, don’t you, and get around the players, see how they go about it.’ I said, ‘Yep that’d be great,'” Paine recalls.

“It was a 1pm game, I think, and they started rolling in from about 9am doing their prep, so I just sat in around the bullpen and went out to the outfield, went into the batting cages and watched for about three or four hours. It was brilliant.”

Paine spent most of his time with the Cubs’ All-Star catcher Willson Contreras, comparing and contrasting the arts of catching, batting and wicketkeeping. “It was awesome. Any time you get to cross-over sports and see how other world-class athletes go about things and how they prepare, you’d be silly not to try and learn as much as you can,” Paine says. “To see someone like that, who’s an All-Star, and a lot of the skill he has is catching and hitting – so, similar sort of stuff to what I do.

“They’re super-professional in the way they recover and the way they prepare for each game, and it’s impressive to watch when you think they’re doing it over 100 times without much rest in 110 or 112 days. They’re highly skilled but the one-percenter type stuff they take to a new level, and I think you’ve got to, to be able to turn up and play day in, day out like they do.”

Observing the pitchers work the bullpen and the batters in their cages, Paine was struck by how much they had in common. “It was so similar to cricket, how they come in,” he says. “It was almost like having throwdowns, then going on to a machine, then into some stuff out in the middle.

“I do need to be myself. I need to keep an eye on that. If I do change a little bit in my behaviour or I’m trying or training too hard, [Langer] just gives me a tap on the shoulder”

“Even the level they go to, the homework they do on the opposition pitchers, the level of detail they have in what they know that pitcher can throw and when he’s going to throw it, and what to look for in his load-up and all that sort of stuff, it was quite exceptional.”

A few hours later, as the crowd filed in for the game, Paine returned to the rest of the travelling group, with something to remember Contreras by. “I’ve got a bat off Willson that he signed. I’ll hold onto that, hopefully by the end of his career he’s an all-time great and it might be a bit of a pool-room item…”

***

Paine has had an eventful 12 months in cricket. From a point where he was not even Tasmania’s first-choice wicketkeeper, he found himself being recalled to Australia’s Test squad for the Ashes, then assuming the captaincy amid the maelstrom of the Newlands scandal. In the eight months since, he has been among the key figures in the leadership as it wrestles with the fallout while also attempting to forge a new Australian team from out of the chaos.

As if that was not enough change, Paine and his wife Bonnie became parents for the first time in mid-2017, and welcomed their second child into the world weeks before the UAE Test tour to face Pakistan. The last two weeks have allowed Paine and his family something of a breather in Hobart, thanks to Tasmania’s consecutive home fixtures in the Sheffield Shield, but he laughs when revealing even that time has included another adjustment.

“It’s been a good couple of weeks, but again now we’re moving house, so that’s another dimension to it,” he says. “Having two young kids for Bonnie at home by herself has been quite challenging. It’s been really busy but back to as normal as it can be this time of the year.

“It’s been a big 18 months, from where I was when we were talking about having a family, and having that all lined up pretty well, and then to be picked in the Ashes has in a good way thrown everything out. It’s been a really hectic time in a cricket sense and a family sense. It’s starting to settle down, which is nice, so I’m looking forward to this summer.”

In the increasingly febrile environment of the Australia Test team last season, Paine’s calm and perspective shone through on the field and off it. His performances with the gloves and the bat brought a sense of reassurance to those around him. Memorably, he was the man in the middle of the David Warner-Quinton de Kock stairwell bust-up in Durban, physically restraining Warner from turning the encounter into something more than a verbal one. Then in unprecedented fashion, Paine found himself summarily appointed captain the morning after the ball-tampering scandal, and held the fort while Steven Smith, Warner and Cameron Bancroft were banned, Darren Lehmann resigned, and a stunned team staggered through the final Test in Johannesburg.

While Paine has always spoken well, carrying himself impressively even as a young cricketer when he debuted alongside Smith against Pakistan at Lord’s in 2010, he admits now that the weight of the job and the circumstances in which he assumed the role took him away from being himself. This was most evident on the mid-year limited-overs tour of England, when he and the new coach, Justin Langer, travelled with high expectations only to see the team atomised by Eoin Morgan’s fearless aggressors.

“That was probably because it was my first tour as captain of Australia,” Paine reflects. “I think trying to set the standard and I probably did overtrain, and tried too hard in a way to perform and didn’t let myself be free and express my skill as much. As well being a bit physically and mentally tired from overtraining, overthinking and trying to be the Australian captain rather than just be myself.”

In the aftermath of the tour, and on the study tour of the United States that followed, Paine and Langer worked at making sure the captain was not losing sight of where he came from. “One of my key things as a captain and a cricketer is, I do need to be myself,” Paine says. “If I do change a little bit in my behaviour or I’m trying or training too hard, he just gives me a tap on the shoulder.

“We’ve had a good relationship over a number of years, so we can talk pretty honestly about that. I’ve made some other people aware of it around the group as well, to keep an eye on it. At times there’s so much going on that you’re just always on the go and you forget to take a step back and relax a little bit. It’s important I continue to do that to keep myself fresh and ready for game day.

“Sometimes in the intensity of international cricket, people can start focusing a bit too much on themselves because you’re just so desperate to perform. I think guys can become a little bit insular”

“The more complicated you try to make it, the bigger and harder the job becomes. I’ve got a job to do as captain, Justin’s got a job to do as coach, and it’s pretty simple. It’s something you try not to overcomplicate.”

***

Away from the dressing room, Paine has a couple of mentors, one from within cricket and one from without, though he prefers not to say who they are. Bonnie has also been critical to keeping him balanced, alerting him if she feels he is disappearing too deeply into the cricket bubble. “Now having two kids as well is another blessing in disguise. You can come home and have a few hours with the kids and you actually haven’t got a chance to think about cricket because you’re so busy. That’s been a real benefit for me.”

The virtues of balance could be seen in the contrast between England and the UAE. Where the first tour featured intensive preparation, the second saw Paine spending as much time as possible at home to be with his wife for the birth of their second child, Charlie, and subsequently missing the majority of the team’s pre-tour camp. Jumping more or less straight from parenthood in Hobart to captaincy in the UAE might appear jarring, but Paine now thinks that it helped him a great deal.

“Sometimes I can actually train too hard and I get to games and, without knowing it, am a little bit tired and a little bit flat,” he says. “For me to have a little bit less of a run into it may have actually worked in my favour, particularly in those hot conditions, and I had the benefits, particularly with my wicketkeeping, of being able to stay quite sharp and concentrate for long periods in those conditions and keep really well.

“Now I know that I don’t have to overtrain all the time. With a Test match, I need to be completely immersed in it. when I’m thinking of other things at times it can be hard, but the great thing with Test matches is, you can’t take your phone in. So once you switch that off for the day, I’m pretty good at being able to go into just cricket.”

In Dubai, Paine kept immaculately throughout, before summoning all his mental and technical reserves to help Usman Khawaja guide Australia to safety. The telling images at the finish – a forward defence, a fist pump, then a gesture to the Australian viewing area to “keep a lid on” the celebrations – were exactly the sorts of deeds that will shape the team under Paine and Langer’s leadership.

The following week, of course, Australia gave up a dominant first-day position to be well beaten by Pakistan, in a reminder of the challenge ahead of them. Facing India under the full glare of the home spotlight will present another challenge, but one that Paine is insistent upon facing without letting his players retreat into themselves. The “gilded bubble” discussed in the Longstaff review is not to be his way.

“In terms of the bubble, I think it’s just that sometimes as much the individual, not so much the Australian Test team, there is so much on and it becomes a bit overwhelming that people just become a bit insular,” Paine says. “We try to keep each other out of that and make sure we keep giving back to the fans and people that come and watch the games.

“Sometimes in the intensity of international cricket, people can start focusing a bit too much on themselves because you’re just so desperate to perform and it’s such a tough game that’s critiqued really heavily as well. I think guys can become a little bit insular, so we’ve got to try as much as we can to give back and open up a bit more.”

One of the observations made by the Australians at Wrigley was how the notion of captaincy is nowhere near as prevalent in baseball as it is in cricket – the Cubs have in fact declined to name a leader since the retirement of Sammy Sosa in the early 2000s. More than anyone, Paine now knows the necessity of sharing the load.

“I try to be quite inclusive, involving our senior players because they’ve played a lot of Test cricket and I also want to involve the younger guys because we want them to develop into leaders down the track,” he says. “That style is another good way of me being able to conserve a bit of energy.”

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