On a typically dreary Manchester morning in August, David Warner is in the indoor nets at Old Trafford with Justin Langer.
The coach is feeding balls into the bowling machine, which is set up around the wicket to simulate Stuart Broad’s angle. The man nicknamed The Bull is displaying the sort of care you expect of someone in a china shop.
“Head still, watch the ball,” Langer says before each delivery, as if on a loop.
On the indoor synthetic wicket, Warner looks rock solid – a different player to the one who has been dismissed by Broad five times in the previous six innings.
He presents the full face of the bat to the balls that warrant attention and leaves with confidence those not threatening his stumps. In the half hour this writer sees, Warner does not get out. As he would say weeks later, he was not out of form but out of runs.
Two days after the net session, against the same type of delivery from Broad that the bowling machine had shot out, Warner is caught in two minds and caught behind. Unsure whether to play or let it go, he has a bit each way and is caught behind trying to pull his bat away too late.
The indecisiveness is the telltale sign of the psychological hold Broad had over him. At his best, Warner does not second guess himself, but Broad, and to a lesser extent Jofra Archer, had figured him out with his ability to move the Dukes ball both ways.
England’s new-ball pairing dismissed him all 10 times in the Ashes. Warner made just 95 runs – the lowest by an opener in a Test series with at least 10 innings.
For a man who recently turned 33, those are the sort of numbers that would have the red light flashing. But if there was any doubt about his place in the side it was quickly erased by selectors.
Another lean run this summer against Pakistan and New Zealand and it could be time for him to pack away the baggy green for good. There are, however, many reasons to feel confident there will be no repeat of his Ashes nightmare.
Here’s three off the top of the head. One, there’s no Stuart Broad. Two, there’s no Dukes ball. Oh, and did we mention he’s playing in Australia?
Of the 30 men to have scored more than 2000 runs on these shores, only four have a higher average here than Warner’s 59.64. Two of them are Don Bradman and Steve Smith. There are some illustrious names behind him: Ricky Ponting, Allan Border and Greg Chappell to name a few.
The last time Pakistan were here, in 2016-17, Warner became the first man to score a ton before lunch on the opening day of a Test and the first to do it anywhere since 1976.
The signs so far this summer are ominous for any visiting bowler. A first-up century at the Gabba in a low-scoring Shield game, followed by 287 runs for one dismissal in six Twenty20s against Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
“As a batter, it’s all about confidence,” Australia’s batting coach Graeme Hick says. “The top players, white ball, red ball, it doesn’t make too much of a difference.”
Using Warner’s Twenty20 numbers to predict how he will fare in a Test is like assessing a horse’s 1000-metre form for a Melbourne Cup, but those who watched him closely in the recent series against Sri Lanka and Pakistan saw a player who knew exactly what he wanted to do and how he would do it. They could not have honestly said the same of Warner just over two months ago in England.
“He reinforced in his mind everything positive – ‘I need to be aggressive, I need to hit the ball, I know what I need to do, run hard’ – everything was positive reinforcement all the time,” former star Michael Hussey, who was part of Australia’s coaching staff for the T20s against Sri Lanka, says.
“He worked pretty hard on his game as well. He feels more comfortable in Australian conditions, he knows it so well, he’s more confident and more decisive in everything he does. That really helped him in the T20 series.”
Laughing and joking with the boys
Warner has emerged from the anguish of last year a much more relaxed figure. His off-field demeanour in England was not that of a man for whom runs had dried up.
If his family was away, it was not uncommon to see him at the hotel bar, sipping nothing stronger than a cup of tea, mixing with support staff and former players. As much as one can tell from the outside, Hussey noted a man “pretty happy where life is”.
“I didn’t see him during the Ashes, certainly around the T20s he seemed really relaxed,” Hussey says. “He was laughing and joking with the boys every opportunity he got, he was vocal in team meetings, often first to speak up.
“I felt like he was in a good place. He loves his family very much and wants to have as much time with his girls as he possibly can.
“Often when we’re chatting away and you bring up the girls it brings a big smile to his face.”
Pakistan pacemen have their work cut out
The recipe for Broad’s success against Warner will not have gone unnoticed by Pakistan coach Misbah-ul-Haq. Around the wicket (or left-arm over), angle the ball into Warner with some moving away late to draw the edge. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Misbah, however, does not have Broad or a Dukes ball at his disposal. The Kookaburra ball used in Australia does not swing conventionally for as long and has a less pronounced seam which reduces the movement off the pitch.
“It’s very difficult to compare because of such different conditions – and the Kookaburra ball,” Hick says. “You won’t have that same movement.
“The length played a big factor, that really challenges any batter. When you add the ball and how the wicket played it’ll be much different to what he faced in England.
“It’s similar to playing spin bowling here compared to the turning wickets on the subcontinent. It’s totally different. Part of the challenge as a frontline batter is adapting. On that trip, Broad just had his number. He’ll be fine.”
Pakistan’s attack may have performed well against Australia A this week but they do not have a bowler of Broad’s quality. They have an Imran Khan but not the Imran Khan, though their current one tasted success against Australia five years ago in the UAE.
So too Mohammad Abbas, who destroyed Langer’s men in his and Tim Paine’s first series in charge, though his lack of pace will not help him in Australia.
Shaheen Afridi, Muhammad Musa and Naseem Shah are teenagers, the latter just 16. Only Afridi has played at Test level.
“It’s hard work on these big fields, hard pitches, it takes a lot out of you as a teenager,” Pakistan great and bowling coach Waqar Younis said this week.
“And we have to keep our fingers crossed that they stay fit and can challenge the Australians.”
If they can’t, there’s a fair chance they’ll end up being as effective to Warner as the bowling machine at Old Trafford.
Andrew Wu writes on cricket and AFL for The Sydney Morning Herald