In his 18 months in the job, Paine has been careful to maintain a certain image for the Australian captain. Largely successful in doing so, he has been rewarded with high praise, some of it measured, some less so.
We all paint a picture of how we want public figures to be. On Tuesday, Mr Gordon Scott of Deakin wrote to The Canberra Times: “Australia lost its way a long time ago and Paine has calmed our very troubled waters. Commentators should think before making hurtful negative commentary and try to think about how much cricket owes to this wonderful leader.”
We in the media are repeat offenders. Paine as Great Leader has not been purely a media creation, but it has been richly embellished, for understandable reasons. The Australian cricket community was in desperate need of a certain type of figurehead after Cape Town. Paine was elevated because he had some, no a lot, of the desired qualities. The rest was left up to us, and soon the leader we wanted was fused with the leader we had. Paine could do no wrong. Everything Paine did was sound and strong and only rarely did something that required us to look the other way.
The problem with this construction of a symbol was that Tim Paine was also a human being and, specifically among human beings, an Australian wicketkeeper. Being an Australian wicketkeeper means that 99 per cent of his cricketing DNA is identical to other Australian wicketkeepers: almost pathologically hard-working, hardened by years of routine, possessed of extraordinary powers of concentration, tough as nails, and competitive as all get out. This is what Australian wicketkeepers are. I once interviewed most of the living Test ‘keepers for a book, and whether they were the most likeable Test cricketers you could imagine (Adam Gilchrist, Wayne Phillips, Brian Taber), the sharpest cricketing brains you had heard (Greg Dyer, Steve Rixon, Ian Healy), or just plain different (Tim Zoehrer), all their variations were just the other one percent of their DNA. The rest, the hard competitive core, is what makes wicketkeepers wicketkeepers.
To face this honestly would create a curly one for Australian cricket, however, because we so needed Paine to be perfect. Australia needed a symbol who could do no wrong. It was an impossible demand, and now it is beginning to play into the gathering tempest around Steve Smith’s availability for the captaincy next year.
The question of Smith’s return or non-return to the captaincy has become a uniquely moral issue. Is he a good enough person to be captain again? Is he reformed? Can someone who made the mistakes Smith made ever be sufficiently reformed? Because these are all moral queries, Paine had to be portrayed in counterpoint as a moral paragon, a standard against which Smith would be measured. Somewhere along the line, the question became whether the moral rectitude of the office of the Australian cricket captaincy would be enhanced or diminished if Steve Smith succeeded Tim Paine. Given what we had turned Paine into, how could Smith (or anyone else) measure up?
Gross over-simplification of moral qualities was, of course, unfair on both Smith and Paine. Just as Smith cannot possibly be as reprehensible as his detractors say, Paine cannot possibly be as perfect as his admirers need him to be. But, for the likes of Mr Scott of Deakin, one is black and the other is white. While Paine is our “wonderful leader”, “the people looking to promote Steve Smith back to the captaincy are asking for possible trouble”. As is the case everywhere, the truth lies somewhere in the vastness in between.
Paine’s team has taken shelter under the image of what the Australian public craves. But as Ben Stokes’s comments about David Warner sledging him in England reveal, image and reality only share the one body during TV interviews and photo ops. This Australian cricket team has behaved pretty well overall since 2018, but you don’t overturn decades of tradition with a values statement written up in one day. By building Paine up, we gave them leave to do so. This leopard hasn’t needed to change its spots: we wishful thinkers have changed them for him.
Cricket Australia’s ultimate debate on Paine’s successor – presuming it will be successor, not replacement – won’t have the luxury of trading in blacks and whites. What they will have before them is a choice between candidates, and they will have to weigh those candidates’ qualities against each other. It won’t be a matter of finding the perfect captain. It will be about finding the best available. The ultimate question won’t be whether Smith should be captain again, but whether he will be captain again. If there are no better alternatives, he will be.
Those of us outside the rope might want to go easy on the caricatures. Paine has given plenty of reasons to refute the notion that he is the messiah. Smith has given just as many to undermine the idea that he is an irredeemable cheat.
And those inside the game would do themselves a favour by going easy on the cheap shots. Kohli has had his villainous moments, but he is also the person who, five years ago, represented his country at Phillip Hughes’s funeral. A few weeks ago, he was making sensitive comments about Glenn Maxwell’s struggle for mental health.
Interestingly, Paine didn’t reply to the questions about next summer by saying that next year, as a 36-year-old, he might be in retirement. It was not the time and place. But perhaps he has reason not to care about Virat Kohli’s mood one way or the other. By then, Virat might not be Tim Paine’s problem.
Malcolm Knox is a sports columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.