<
>

Have we seen the last of Tim Paine on a cricket field?

Tim Paine speaks at a press conference Patrick Hamilton / © AFP/Getty Images

Not long ago one of the pre-Ashes narratives was whether Tim Paine might get the chance to finish his Test career in an Ashes victory on his home ground in Hobart.

With doubts over whether Perth could host the final Test of this season's series due to border restrictions, the Tasmania government made a strong push for the match. It was always likely to be a long shot, but it did carry the emotional attachment of the captain's story.

Now, on the day that Pat Cummins was announced as the new Test captain, there is a very real chance that Paine has played his last game for Australia, having taken an indefinite break from cricket to manage his mental health.

He made a big mistake with the explicit image he sent in 2017. Cricket Australia still has questions to answer about the initial investigations. There is a strong argument to make that Paine should not have kept the captaincy in 2018, although that point being made by the current CA board was not helpful.

Paine is not the victim in all this. Subsequently revealed messages from the exchange in question showed he knew he was putting himself in a situation that could unravel. After his resignation he admitted to knowing the exchange could have become public at any time over the last three years.

play
0:43

CA chair questions initial response to Paine in 2018

CA chair Richard Freudenstein says the current board would make a "different decision" in Paine's circumstances today

But, regardless of where you sit with regards to this whole mess, the phrasing of the tweet from Paine's manager James Henderson earlier today was worrying. "We are extremely concerned for his and [wife] Bonnie's well-being," it read.

Less than 24 hours previously he had been named in Tasmania's one-day squad to face Western Australia as he was completing his return to action from neck surgery with a four-day 2nd XI outing. He had failed twice with the bat but kept nicely. The plan was to get another day of cricket, at a higher level, before heading up to Queensland to join the Test squad.

Overnight things changed and at the time the rest of the players were informed of the decision over the captaincy, they were told that Paine would not be joining them. For now it is an open-ended situation, and there was genuine warmth when Cummins spoke of hoping to welcome Paine back, but nothing about this works in Paine's favour. Even if he feels ready to return over the next few weeks, there is no long-form cricket now that the BBL is about to start, and it would be tricky to select a new wicketkeeper and then leave them out.

There was always a risk it would play out this way after the events of last Friday. Team-mates, naturally, spoke glowingly of Paine's imminent return over the previous 24 hours - Nathan Lyon going into some detail about what made him, in his view, the best wicketkeeper in the world - but it would have been a huge challenge for Paine to walk out at the Gabba.

If this is it for his Australia career it will have come to an end at the Gabba with last January's defeat against India, the team's first loss at the ground in 32 years. It meant a second series loss to India under Paine's captaincy following one by the same 2-1 margin in 2018-19. On that occasion there was more leeway as the team rebuilt after the ball-tampering scandal, but last season's loss was a body blow. Outside of those two India series, Paine had won every home Test - against Sri Lanka, Pakistan and New Zealand - but he needed this Ashes to bolster the record.

His overall record as captain reads: played 23, won 11, lost eight, drawn four. His finest hour came at Old Trafford in 2019 when Australia retained the Ashes in England for the first time in 18 years. The lead-up to that match, following Ben Stokes' extraordinary display at Headingley, during which Australia lost their composure, was impressive in bringing the team back together. That the series ended 2-2 was another blow to a more definite legacy but to secure the urn 18 months after the debacle in South Africa was a significant achievement.

Much has been said about Paine the batter and quite a lot of it is misplaced. The lack of a Test century is a hole - his best of 92, against India in Mohali, coming in his first brief incarnation as a Test cricketer in 2010 remains his top score - but over the last two seasons at home he has averaged 37.00. Early in his captaincy he saved a Test in Dubai with an unbeaten 61 alongside Usman Khawaja. He was no Adam Gilchrist, but then no one else has been. His Test average as keeper of 31.97 is comparable to Jos Buttler (29.36), Brad Haddin (32.98), Matthew Wade (28.58) and Niroshan Dickwella (33.80) to pick out a few contemporaries.

To some, none of this, the numbers and statistics, not being able to end a career on his terms, or at least on the Test field, will matter. There will, understandably, be a lack of sympathy from many. But it's also possible to acknowledge his foolishness and still feel a tinge of sadness. If Paine has played his last game of cricket, it is to be hoped that in time there is still a place for him in the sport.