Fickle finger of Tim Paine's fate
A trivia question. Of currently active Australian cricketers, who has the highest batting average in India?
Steven Smith? Nope. David Warner? Nope. Matthew Wade? Nope. Glenn Maxwell? Not even close.
Believe it or not, the holder of this garland is actually Tim Paine. Two Tests, 183 runs at 45.75, two fifties and a top score of 92. All made in 2010, the year he made his Test debut at Lord's alongside a younger, pudgier Smith. The time Paine spent batting and keeping wicket in India are among his most treasured memories; his method in the middle disarmingly simple.
"I blocked a lot, I waited for a cut, I pulled, and I certainly didn't sweep," Paine told ESPNcricinfo. "My plan against the spinners was to play off the back foot more than the front foot. I just found that it took the guys in close out of the play a little bit and made it a bit easier for me to rotate strike rather than to lunge and run at them, which is something I'm not all that good at.
"I just played deep in the crease, and if I got one that I could hit off one step, I tried to hit it hard, otherwise I just tried to work the ball around off the back foot and play with soft hands. It was hard work but really enjoyable.
"I found wicketkeeping, in particular, to be great fun over there. Up to the stumps when it's turning that much, you're always in the game, and that's the best way to be when you're wicketkeeping.
"You hear a lot about how hard it's going to be, and it certainly is, but I think people can get too caught up in it sometimes. Cricket's a simple game and it's about backing your strengths with both bat and gloves and sticking to your game plan. The guys that do that have success and the guys who can do it for the longest will do really well. It's a place where you've really got to accept the challenge and enjoy the challenge."
All these words sound like wise counsel for Australia's tourists in the first Test against India in Pune, and certainly Paine would give a lot for the chance to take part alongside them. The main reason he isn't playing dates back to the same year he played his four Test matches, and the format, ironically enough, in which Paine is currently representing his country at home against Sri Lanka - T20.
A broken right index finger in the short-lived Australian Cricketers Association All-Stars fixture that had been devised as a launch for the home summer led to no fewer than seven sets of surgery, a loss of confidence, and ultimately the loss of his spot in the Tasmanian Sheffield Shield side. It all began to unravel at a time when Paine was being talked about as a future leader of the Australian side - which he now recalls with a rueful half-chuckle.
"I remember I was being touted as a future captain for about a week or two, I think, back then," he said. "It was a lot of fun, playing Test cricket at that stage with some of the great players Australia's had was really exciting for me at that age, and unfortunately things didn't pan out in the next couple of years after that and I had a bit of a battle the last few years."
Even after the initial break, Paine remained very much in the national selectors' thoughts. He served as vice-captain of the T20 team under Cameron White in early 2011, and then toured England with Australia A the following year. But the horrible, repetitious cycle of injury, rehabilitation, rushed return and fresh injury left him struggling even to make a fist with his right hand, let alone use it to hold a bat or glove a flying cricket ball.
As the surgeries mounted, Paine came close to quitting. "I did think about it, I was forced to think about it," he said. "I think I had six or seven operations in the end, so it was getting to the stage where if it didn't work out, it was something I had to look at. But luckily enough, I found a good surgeon in Sydney, and after the seventh one I haven't had another one since. I certainly never wanted to but at one stage it wasn't going to be out of the question that I couldn't play."
Eventually the sequence ended, but it was to be followed by a more fundamental problem. Paine, always a well-spoken and organised character, found himself struggling to make a run. "Batting, in particular, is really a mental game, and when you lose that confidence, it can be really hard work. I lost mine for quite a while, so that was difficult," he said. "It's a funny feeling. I was honestly walking out to bat at times not knowing where I would score a run or how I'd score a run.
"When someone's coming back from injury, there's always a bit of chat about it along the lines of 'Let's get some around his finger' or that sort of stuff. But with my batting that was only affecting me for the first few hits when I came back, then after that I wasn't really thinking about my finger. It was purely a loss of form and of confidence.
"When it gets like that, it becomes pretty hard work, and then from that there were times when I didn't even want to play. I certainly wasn't enjoying playing cricket, so it just snowballed from that. It can be really hard work to try to go play cricket day in, day out when you're thinking like that."
All the while, the game moved on around Paine. His fellow Tasmanian Matthew Wade was elevated to the Test team, Brad Haddin dropped out of the picture and then returned, and others like Peter Nevill and Sam Whiteman emerged. In Tasmania the signing of the young Jake Doran put further pressure on Paine's place, which he lost altogether at the start of this summer.
What remained was T20, a format Paine had worked at assiduously since the early days of being shunted as low as possible in the order due to a lack of power. "My T20 stuff started maybe a year or two before I played for Australia," he said. "I was always a smaller player, playing for Tasmania when I was young, so I always found myself in T20 cricket down the order, batting seven or eight, and if it got to the last few overs I'd tend to slide down even further and the bowlers would come ahead of me.
"One morning in North Hobart I caught up with Tim Coyle for a coffee and he said, 'We're going to have a look at you opening the batting.' It was a game against NSW, where I got 50 pretty quickly and just found it suited my style of play. It wasn't anything I had to change so much, but me being smaller, the ball coming onto the bat and the field coming in, someone who couldn't hit too many sixes but could hit fours, it was a good fit for me and the team."
Paine's consistency with bat and gloves for Hobart Hurricanes led to another Australian call-up, six years after his last. But he is equally excited by a return to Tasmania colours later this week, at a time when the state side is still coming to terms with the dismissal of the coach and former captain Dan Marsh from his mentoring role.
"We did have quite a successful era there but we've had a high turnover of players and staff," Paine said. "While we still think we've got a better team than what we've done in the last few years, we just haven't played well enough unfortunately. Things look to be changing down there, which is unfortunate but also exciting at the same time. Now being an older guy and being back in the squad, I've certainly tried to help some of our younger guys and looking forward to playing with them this week."
Another twist lies ahead for Paine - Wade having indicated his desire to return home to Tasmania and thus claim the gloves whenever he is not playing for Australia. But Paine remains committed to the cause of his state and his country, even hopeful that one day he might be able to add to those runs made so doggedly in India seven years ago.
"I've got to play well in these last three games first and foremost, otherwise where I'm playing won't be up to me," he said. "But the last 12 months I've been playing well again and if you play well enough for long enough you'll get opportunities at all levels."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig