Prior to the first Test against Pakistan, the summer’s looming story centred on when Australian skipper Tim Paine might call it quits on his brief, albeit remarkable, career.
The wartime captain, who turned 35 after the Adelaide Test, had already achieved his key goals. Having retained the Ashes and, along with Justin Langer, transformed a dressing room culture in need of wholesale change, boxes number one and two were ticked off.
And with series against Pakistan and New Zealand to come (ones in which his side would start as firm favourites) a swansong summer loomed.
In turn, speculation arose whether the man he replaced would duly retake his position.
The drip-feed of opinion, mostly from former players, that Steve Smith should retain the captaincy would only heighten the sense of a looming expiry date on Paine’s captaincy.
Mark Waugh said a return to Smith was the “logical” move, while Brian Lara said his leadership was “up there with the very best”. Nipping at his heels, keeper-in-waiting Alex Carey’s consistent form didn’t help Paine’s cause, either.
While there mightn’t have been critics of the captain per se, the noise suggested this summer might be his last.
But Paine had other ideas.
As he led his team off the SCG dais on Monday afternoon, he might have afforded himself the chance to stick one to the critics (internally, of course). Not just for leading another successful series, but for earning himself more time in a role he has made his own.
The Australian skipper led from the front, executing one of the most complete wicketkeeping performances we’ve seen in some time, while remaining a steady number seven who contributes runs when needed.
While performances from the likes of Marnus Labuschagne and David Warner stole the limelight, Paine’s less-apparent influence, as has been the case in the last 12 months, was equally crucial.
Langer last week termed him “almost our most important player” and said speculation over the skipper’s future was merely external.
“The truth is there’s been conjecture from outside, there’s never been one millisecond of conjecture from within our team,” the coach said.
On a leadership front, Paine further stamped his authority on the team, leading a ruthless outfit that punched the opposition bruise at every possible chance.
When the Australians were cruising with the bat, they would ensure their position of strength never ceased – five out of five first-innings totals of 400-plus attest to that.
With the ball, they were equally ruthless. In four of the six times they bowled to New Zealand, the Black Caps were skittled for under 180.
Paine’s influence shouldn’t be overstated, but his impact (along with Langer) on the side’s mentality is clear.
With the gloves, he remains strikingly clean, a near-flawless summer capped off with some polished work behind the stumps to Nathan Lyon at the SCG.
His numbers back it up, too. No player in the history of Test cricket has had more than Paine’s 140 dismissals after 31 Tests. His 58 dismissals in 2019 (56 catches, two stumpings) was 24 more than the next best, and the equal-sixth highest ever in a calendar year.
Again, he is helped in this by one of modern cricket’s best bowling quartets, but keen watchers of the game know his worth. His feet are tidy, his hands are sharp, and he rarely misses.
With the bat (the main knock on his game) Paine chipped in where needed and compiled a momentum-shifting 79 at the MCG, an innings he looked almost certain for a maiden Test ton. Despite the outside pressure on this aspect of his game, his average of 31.58 is the third-highest of all Australian wicketkeeper-batsmen, behind Brad Haddin and Adam Gilchrist.
Paine’s clinical summer was not by chance, either. The captain has put in place measures to extend his career as long as possible, namely giving up almost all white-ball cricket.
His performances not only buy Paine more time in a role he cherishes, it allows Cricket Australia more time to find his successor.
Should Paine captain until the world Test championship final (results pending) in mid-2021, it gives the governing body another 18 months to find the country’s next Test captain. If he leads until then, it’s unlikely it will be Smith to replace him.
Paine himself, though, won’t be looking too far ahead. He knows he can’t as a 35-year-old. But this summer has underlined his true importance.
And it has seen the critics’ noise grow quieter by the day.