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Opinion

Does Australia need a new Test cricket captain or a new leadership model?

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Editor
25th January, 2021
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Too sloppy with his keeping, too predictable in his strategies, too boring with his bowling changes. Too old.

Following the series loss to India, there have been calls for Tim Paine to be replaced as the Australian Test captain.

It’s a strong reminder that in sport, you’re only as good as your last match, given the way we were heralding the Tasmanian this time last year after he led his charges to a clean-sweep summer, beating Pakistan 2-0 and then the Kiwis 3-0.

As the Aussies were in their death throes at the Gabba last Tuesday, Ian Chappell said on ABC Grandstand that you only notice a captain when he’s losing.

The funny thing about that is while Paine has been largely successful in his time in the second-most-important office in the land – coming into this series, he had only lost six Tests from 19 in charge – his captaincy has always been closely scrutinised, due to the way in which he came to the role.

After the 2018 fiasco in Cape Town, Paine had the job of captain thrust upon him and he was charged with creating a new era in the Aussie Test team.

As a result, his leadership has been dissected throughout his tenure, with largely positive results.

Tim Paine

Tim Paine (Photo by Mark Brake – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

He appeared to be fostering a different culture in the team, one where ‘sledging’ was no longer acceptable, although ‘banter’ was fine.

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Which is why his sniping from behind the stumps at Ravichandran Ashwin on Day 5 in Sydney was met with such shock.

Tim Paine doesn’t call people “dickhead”, what’s he playing at?

My two cents on his words that day are that Paine was a victim of a nation’s significantly lowered expectations.

We were all so eager to believe the keeper was great at banter that the sport pages frothed over how brilliant he was for asking Rishabh Pant to babysit his kids two summers ago, during the third Test match against India at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Despite it being a decidedly banal bit of chat, we Aussies were desperate to show that our team had changed, which led to the skipper being heralded as some kind of comic genius and the word “hilarious” used in just about every description of what was actually a pretty boring attempt to put off a batsman.

(As an aside, sporting publications all over the world need to retire the word ‘hilarious’ because they clearly don’t know what it means. Don’t even get me started on the crying-laughing emoji.)

But if you’re being held up as Jerry Seinfeld in whites – no blue humour here, just good, clean fun for the whole family – you’re going to be hauled over the coals if you resort to using a single crass word, as a clearly frustrated Paine did at the SCG.

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His interaction with Ashwin wasn’t really that offensive or upsetting, it’s just that his chat to Pant wasn’t that funny or insightful either. His banter is as ordinary as his sledging and we shouldn’t have ever pretended it was otherwise – it was unfair on Paine.

But we were all just so smitten with him. He was the good-looking guy at the party who people fawn over and promise he’s clever and witty even if he’s offering up conversation that would put a freshly dosed meth-head to sleep.

As for why were we allowing both him and ourselves to believe this delusion, it’s because – generally crap chat aside – Tim Paine has been a bloody good leader.

After watching The Test last year I was so glad we had a steady hand on the tiller – and no, I don’t mean the coach.

Paine has overseen a shift in the team, with a premium on decency finally in place.

However, being a good leader doesn’t necessarily equate with being a tactically astute captain.

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And with the best pace unit in the world and a spin bowler closing in on his 400th Test wicket, Paine was unable to get 20 wickets on three of his four attempts against India these past two months.

So perhaps it’s time Australia look at another model.

My proposal is something akin to that which the Knights employed in the 2001 NRL season, when Andrew Johns was captain of the first-grade side but Billy Peden was the club captain.

Essentially, the best player led the team, the best man led the club.

In this fashion, Tim Paine would have the title of Australian captain but he would cede the role of men’s Test team captain to the bloke with the smarts to win games – probably, at this point in time, one Steven Peter Devereux Smith.

Steve Smith.

You down with SPD? Yeh, you know me. (Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

This would see Paine held up as the spiritual leader, the first man on the field to shake hands with the opposition, give celebratory or congratulatory speeches at the end of play, and probably do the bulk of the media work.

But when it comes to the toss, setting the field, the DRS calls and any other decision that directly influences the outcome of the match, the Test team captain has first and final say.

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It’s not a model I would suggest is needed forever, but then again, perhaps it’s a good means by which to ensure Pat Cummins is the next leader of the team without reducing his bowling output as a result of having the extra baggage of making all the on-field calls.

Of course, if a standout choice presents themselves as the person to be the leader and the captain, then by all means give that person the traditional role.

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But with pink balls, day-night Tests and numbers on players’ backs, Test cricket is changing rapidly and the ‘tradition’ argument (“that’s not how Richie Benaud would have done it”) is about as helpful as complaining about the third umpire – the ship has sailed.

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Ultimately, as long as he’s standing behind the stumps, it would be foolish not to utilise all Paine’s leadership skills.

But while Tim Paine is our best leader, he’s probably not our best captain.