Following the inaugural Calendar Ashes series down under, England will now seek to regain the urn at home.
When Ricky Ponting used to land in the United Kingdom, there was an eerie sense of authority that under his leadership, Australia would regain or retain the Ashes.
Australia’s most prolific run-scorer also possessed the team in his armoury. As uncompromising Ponting’s will to win was, it was tactical blunders that left him winless on the English shores.
Then came Michael Clarke. Clarke kept elevating himself under the leadership of Ponting. Clarke’s unbridled desire for winning the urn in England got thwarted by one of Australia’s most dismal batting performances in 2015 at the forefront of which stood the captain himself.
His injuries didn’t give enough room either to hang around for the subsequent bout between the two sides. As a result, Clarke hung up his boots, having led Australia to a consolation win at the Oval in the final Test.
The above two became the apparent contenders to lead Australia as and when the change of guards took place. But Tim Paine was instead someone to fall back on.
It looked like an uncanny choice, for the chirpy gloveman from Tasmania suffered enough bumps in his career to make a comeback. However, now as the skipper after the removal of Smith, he was here to stay.
Back in 2009, when he made his first appearance, Tim Paine’s opening partnership along with Shane Watson acted as a prelude to Australia’s success in one-day cricket post the Ashes defeat.
The injury in the all-stars T20 game at Brisbane a year later served as the most significant setback to his career. However, Paine made his Test debut a little earlier than that, having produced useful knocks to keep him afloat.
It looked as though the injury suffered by him has forever deprived him of a career that was once promised. But the ray of sunshine wasn’t going to fade away, at least not without handing Paine one last shot in achieving what the Australians were yearning for since long.
It was six years before the seeds were sown. The Tasmanian received an international recall, having picked for the T20I series against Sri Lanka in February 2017.
And runs were secondary. What the Australian selectors were looking for was a wicketkeeper with composure with a sharp glovework behind the stumps.
Matthew Wade and Peter Nevill couldn’t thrive in the department as much as the think-tank preferred them to. With the Ashes down under on the horizon, a third contender in Tim Paine emerged.
But Paine, having made a comeback to international cricket not too long ago, was far from primed for the job. Nonetheless, the selection panel swung the axe on Nevill and Wade to give Paine a run.
At 33, he wore the baggy green cap again, and at 34, Paine found himself in charge of the Test team. Post the banishment of Steve Smith and David Warner, Paine’s level-headedness on and off the field defined this new Australia.
And indeed his thrust to the leadership position was the initial step in winning back the trust element of the fans. The Australian team couldn’t afford another misstep at this point.
Needless to say, that wasn’t the only task he had it out for him. He had the responsibility to regroup, revitalise, and reignite the lost confidence in his men. At the outset, the reality check hit him.
When put in charge of the one-day team against an English side filled with aplomb, the hosts sent the old enemy packing, winless in five games on the trot.
Paine’s boys saw an aura of invincibility in this English side that no other Aussie team had ever witnessed. Eoin Morgan’s men not only defeated them but also left reminded the men in yellow that the brand of 50-over cricket currently played by them is obsolete.
When leading the Test team, Paine found little success other than in the pace bowlers, capable of wreaking havoc to any batting line-up. But in the absence of Steve Smith, Australia had no glue left to hold their batting from getting subsided. Usman Khawaja put his hand up briefly with his laborious knock at Dubai only to experience a disastrous outing against India in the home summer later.
Paine too failed to produce enough runs. Under his reign, Australia conceded their first-ever home series defeat to India. But his men ended the summer on a high note, retaining the Warne-Muralidharan trophy by steamrolling Sri Lanka.
And Paine started setting his sights on the highest honours, retaining the Ashes. Unlike the previous captains who were unsuccessful in more than one trip to England in regaining or retaining the Ashes, Paine understood this could be his only chance.
As opposed to Ponting, his fellow Tasmanian took some astute decisions on the field. The move to bring Marnus Labuschagne at the last hour in the fourth Test to dislodge a stubborn Jack Leach remains the highlight of his captaincy.
But the gulf between the two sides was narrow and broad at the same time. Yes, Steve Smith’s exquisite display with the bat had England scratching their heads whether they can find anyone who can bat as consistently as him throughout the series.
In retrospect, Clarke required one extraordinary support similar to that of Smith’s in his reign and then some more from his bowlers.
The urn stayed down under. Sure, the overall result of the series could have turned out better. Had Australia used their review thoughtfully at Leeds and batted first at the Oval, the result could have gone otherwise.
Having done so, this Australian team would have flown out of the British territory as the most dominant team to tour the country. However, by retaining the Ashes, he indeed has rewritten his story. When he hangs up his boots, Paine may not get counted in the leagues of Pontings, Clarkes, and the Waughs. But the nation’s 46th Test captain achieved something that the previous two elite predecessors couldn’t.
The positive sign is Paine’s hunger to succeed continues. At 34, he is nearing his twilight along with few men knocking the doors hard to take his spot in the team.
With success beginning to beckon under him, Australia may want to resume with Paine as a leader to decode the blueprint to stand triumphant in the sub-continent.