What sense of relief will Tim Paine feel when he leads the Australian players out at The Oval for their first match since that series and, once the goodwill handshakes are out of the way, actually starts playing some cricket?
It would be over-stating it to describe the coveted role of Australia captain as a poisoned chalice but, in his brief tenure to date, Paine has been forced to shoulder the burden of rebuilding the shattered reputation and integrity of the national side in a way none of his predecessors has had to do.
The press conference on the eve of Australia’s first outing since the calamitous series in South Africa was predictable in echoing every other media opportunity in the wake of ‘sandpapergate’: a barrage questions on sledging, banter, abuse and behaviour. Please, no more talk about “The Line”. While he answered them all with a weary politeness, there are only so many ways Paine can rephrase the same answer.
“I can’t talk about it anymore to be honest,” Paine said. “We’ve talked about what’s acceptable from our team and what people are saying from outside our team doesn’t really matter.
“Internally we know what’s right and what’s wrong, and that’s what counts.”
Paine’s situation is remarkable. After making his Test debut alongside Steve Smith, a thumb injury sustained in an exhibition match left him watching Smith’s ascendancy from afar while he battled to keep his career afloat through periods of further injury and, at times, indifferent form. He was mentioned in sympathetic tones, a subject of regretful “what-ifs”.
Last year, unable to sustain his place in the Tasmanian side, Paine had accepted his playing days were over and he was planning the next phase of his life. His unexpected recall to the Australian team for the Ashes was the feel-good story of the summer; the shocking circumstances of his rise to the captaincy were as unforeseen as they were unfortunate.
But the fact this has all landed in his lap at a time after he had expected it to be over gives him a valuable perspective.
“I’m in a really good space with my cricket,” said Paine. “I’m captaining Australia where twelve months ago I was nearly working for Kookaburra sports.
“Every game I play for Australia is an absolute bonus for me. I spoke to JL [Justin Langer] this morning about trying to play every game for Australia as if it’s my last, and it’s easy for me to do that.”
While Paine’s situation is unusual, it’s not entirely unique in modern cricket and, if he is looking for an example of what is possible in such circumstances, a glance in the direction of Misbah-ul-Haq’s history would not go amiss.
Unwanted by his team for the 2010 tour of England, Misbah later revealed he felt like burning his kit and throwing it away, such was his disillusionment. Luckily, he didn’t. He and his kit were called upon in the aftermath of Pakistan’s most notorious cricket scandal, the outcomes of which dwarf Australia’s recent transgressions in scale: players jailed, the standing of the team seemingly irrevocably destroyed.
Misbah was an unlikely hero – remember the tuk-tuk jibes? – and yet, in the space of four years, he achieved what many thought would be impossible at the start of his captaincy. With the help of trusted lieutenants and allies and, on the strength of his own determined conviction, he led the resurgence of Pakistan, the restoration of its reputation in international cricket and – despite never having the advantage of playing at home – took his side to the top of the world Test rankings. The setting for the drawn match which secured Pakistan’s No.1 ranking is the same venue where Paine’s side will take its first steps back from its own pit of ignominy.
This is not to suggest Paine will emulate Misbah’s achievements in a playing or leadership sense. Whether or not Paine is the long-term solution to Australia’s captaincy, or even wicketkeeping, remains to be seen. But Misbah showed, at the very least, that Australia’s – and Paine’s – obstacles are not insurmountable.
Before anything of the sort is possible, of course, there is some cricket to be played. And redemption to be sought.
“Words are words,” said Paine. “Come Wednesday, it’s time for us to act on those words and show it by actions.”