Will Pucovski is on the cusp of great things
In her excellent book Grit, Angela Duckworth asserts that natural gifts alone can become a distraction, counting for very little in the long run. "As much as talent counts, effort counts twice," she concludes from a comprehensive behavioural study.
Fortunately for Australian cricket, Will Pucovski appears to have arrived on the scene with both, along with a strong dash of self-awareness. All the prerequisites are present for the 18-year-old ton machine to become a very big deal on the senior stage, and soon.
Pucovski spoke to ESPNcricinfo in the week following the most significant fortnight of his sporting life so far. In the national championships he made four centuries on the bounce for Victoria's Under-19s. Upon arriving home, he clocked his maiden first grade century for the Melbourne Cricket Club. Next stop: the SCG for a Big Bash League curtain raiser, where he will lead a "Gilchrist XII" showcasing Generation Next on December 27.
From the relative anonymity of age-group cricket Pucovski now fields questions underpinned by a tone of inevitability that he will go on to earn the highest honours available. National Talent Manager and Australian selector Greg Chappell has hinted as much in his own lavish praise of a player he and his colleagues have had their eye on for a long time.
Pucovski is already media-trained to the back teeth, ready with modest responses about the importance of his team winning when he makes runs, or who he had on the wall as a kid (Ricky Ponting, if you were wondering). Chest out, eyes forward, hands behind his back. He may be new to this but he knows the drill.
Sitting across the table in a more intimate setting, less than a couple of Ponting pull shots from the MCG pitch that he dreams to dominate for state and country, what's most striking is Pucovski's maturity - the kind that most aren't quite so blessed with in a lifetime.
This has been directly aided by having plenty of time to sit and think over the last couple of formative years - the result of what Pucovski describes as a "bit of a head injury", when his skull slammed onto the knee of another player at football training. It was more serious than that; a severe concussion kept him not only out of sport but out of school for six months, restricted to rest on the couch. He was a sick boy.
The symptoms lingered when he went back to cricket that summer. As if foretold, it happened again: struck in the head by a bouncer. Next, he ran into a door at home. At this point Cricket Victoria stepped in and said he should take the rest of the season off.
But it still wasn't over. As recently as a couple of months ago he was hit once more in a freak training accident, a flying ball from an adjoining net collecting his now-battered skull. He only just got back to playing before the aforementioned carnival, where finally he did the smashing again: of the run-scorer's record that had lasted nearly a quarter of a century.
"Mentally I got through it pretty well," Pucovski reflects of the ordeal. Encouragingly from a batting standpoint, he says that the blows haven't affected him to the extent that he is unduly worried about his safety at the crease. Sports psychologists he worked with in this period doubtless have much to be thanked for there.
Of course, he had every right to be angry. Most would. Between times he debuted for Victoria's 2nd XI a week after his 17th birthday, making 45 in a side captained by David Hussey, and also including James Pattinson and Travis Dean.
But when taken to England with the Australian U-19s, severe headaches kept him off the field more than on it. Impatience can breed ill-discipline, but Pucovski was determined not to let an injured head cascade into a loss of nerve.
"I was always looking at it from the perspective that there are people worse off than me," he explains. "I know it could have been a lot worse, and I was always confident that I would get back to full fitness."
It's this clear-headed thinking that defines Pucovski and informs other facets of his life now that the injury is - touch wood - behind him.
For one, he hasn't let his privileged position as someone who can do what he can with the bat diminish his thirst to learn. The son of two senior teachers, he worked hard at school and won a place at Monash University to study Arts. "It is pretty hard to make it as a professional cricketer," he says with more of that self-awareness. "So it's important to have a back-up."
In keeping with the education theme, Pucovski works part-time at a local school mentoring a child with ADHD. "It is pretty rewarding when the kid is improving, and it does give you a bit of a kick because you've contributed in a way to making his life better," he says with a smile.
All this is refreshing in a sporting landscape too often dominated by lads behaving badly. Which isn't to say Pucovski doesn't go out with his mates for a night out just like any other (he does) and that he doesn't like a beer (he does that too). But don't expect to see him on the front page running amok. He's pledged to never smoke and never do drugs. You believe him.
"One thing I have prided myself on is trying to stay level-headed and make sure I am not getting into the wrong things," he goes on. "I don't really see myself going down that path where I would be seen as that guy who does go off the rails."
Pucovski speaks of balance in life, saying time spent away from cricket is just as important to success as hours logged in the nets: that when cricket isn't his whole world, he plays better.
Coupling two outside interests - journalism and soccer - he has taken to sports opinion website the Roar to pen articles about his beloved Manchester United. From the sample on there, this much is for sure: he'll never need a ghostwriter. Passion for the world game started with his father, who came to Australia from Serbia as a boy, with roots in the former Czechoslovakia.
In Chappell's assessment, Pucovski is a classical player, equally free in scoring on both sides of the wicket. "He's got power when he needs it, but he can hit the ball with enough speed to get it through the field, which is something that's made him stand out," the former Australian captain said. "It's a hallmark of his game; he hardly hits the ball in the air."
Assessing his own game, Pucovski freely admits that he doesn't have the inventive streak of Glenn Maxwell, describing himself as a prodder rather than a plunderer. Graham Manou, previously an Australian Test wicketkeeper and now CA's Pathways Manager, is a bit more generous, saying that you can already "see elements" of Ponting in Pucovski's strokeplay.
So what if this happens? If he emerges into a household name in the coming years? "How do I describe it? Surreal," Pucovski replies. He has seen the rapid rise of friend Sam Harper into a senior position for Victoria behind the stumps and understands the opportunity is there for him as well.
Exciting as that narrative is, he is equally mindful of the risks that come with name recognition and fame. Of everyone wanting their pound of flesh. But he doesn't want to let "external things" change who he is: "a good citizen at the same time as trying to make it in cricket". With a disposition like this, it's little wonder he keeps getting made captain of sides.
It's unconventional, but this young man knows that his sobering early injuries are a "significant part" of his story. As a cricketer and as a human being. And maybe the true making of him on both counts.
"I know that there is a lot more important things to ponder rather than worry about little things," he says. "I am looking at it more from an appreciative point of view, where I am just lucky to play a game that I love. If I am good enough, I will make it. If I'm not, I won't."
If only they all arrived like this.