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Australian cricket has been plunged into disarray 19 days before the men’s Ashes get underway by the resignation of captain Tim Paine after unsolicited lewd messages and explicit images he sent to a colleague in 2017 surfaced.
Paine became the second successive Australia captain to resign in tearful disgrace, after Steve Smith amid the ‘Sandpapergate’ scandal of 2018.
That seismic scandal brought Paine into the job, and he was anointed by Cricket Australia as the poster boy of a new, kinder, cleaner era of Australian cricket, a tainted brand.
The seeds of his own downfall had already been sown by then, however. In 2017, on the eve of his return to Test cricket in the Ashes, Paine — a married father of two — sent explicit messages, reported to include a picture of his penis, to a staff member at Cricket Tasmania.
The matter was investigated by CA soon after he was made captain. They exonerated him under their code of conduct but Paine on Friday resigned in advance of the situation becoming public.
Paine, 36, has had a mixed run as Test captain. His wicketkeeping has remained solid, but he has averaged only 28 with the bat as captain, and earned a reputation as a questionable user of the Decision Review System, most notably when wasting a valuable review on Jack Leach in the dying moments of England’s Headingley heist of 2019.
His team retained the Ashes in England in that series, but a poor performance at the Kia Oval cost them victory in a series they should have won. Under Paine, Australia have twice lost at home to India, including the historic defeat at The Gabba in January.
That series defeat is also remembered for Paine’s ratty sledging that appeared to show a man under pressure, and recently he has drawn ire from England fans for bullish comments as quarantine conditions for the Ashes were worked through.
On his radio show in Hobart, Paine said: “They’ll have a choice to make, you either get on that plane or don’t. No one is forcing you to come. If you don’t want to come, don’t come. The Ashes are going ahead. The First Test is on December 8, whether Joe [Root] is here or not.”
Whether Paine will be there himself remains to be seen. He has expressed a desire to remain part of Australia’s team, but that matter is complicated by his fitness, his moderate record and other contenders for the role of wicketkeeper-batter.
Paine has not played since April, and a bulging disc saw him undergo surgery last month. He has failed to score a century in 35 Tests — indeed, he has just three in a 16-year first-class career — and Alex Carey, Josh Inglis or even Matthew Wade could come into the side.
The first question CA’s selectors must answer, however, is who will be their 47th captain in men’s Test cricket. Pat Cummins, Paine’s vice-captain, is the overwhelming favourite, but his appointment would bring complications.
A bowler being captain is highly unusual in Australia; indeed, the last quick to do the job was Ray Lindwall for a solitary Test in 1956.
Spin-bowling all-rounder Richie Benaud did the job between 1958 and 1964, but it has generally been the domain of batters. Cummins is widely respected across the cricketing world and a deep thinker on the game and life.
Despite being an all-format international who also plays in the IPL, he has had a formidable injury record in recent years. That is in stark contrast to the six years he had to wait between his first and second Tests due to multiple serious injuries. His appointment would be a risk, as it is asking a lot of him to play every Test match, but he is the standout candidate.
Smith is open to a return to the captaincy, having served a two-year ban from all leadership positions for his role in the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa. He was not the most tactically astute or powerful captain, but he is an all-time great batter and guaranteed a place in the side.
CA might reflect, however, that replacing Paine with their last disgraced captain might not be the best look. David Warner, pinned as the ringleader in ‘Sandpapergate’, is not a realistic candidate because he was handed a draconian lifetime ban from leadership in 2018.
Australia’s third option would be to hand it to another batter, such as Marnus Labuschagne, whose temperament currently appears totally inappropriate, Usman Khawaja or Travis Head, who captain their state teams but have only just been recalled after time out of the side.
England are assembled in Queensland ahead of the First Test and might be relieved that the focus is off them after a very difficult week for the game in this country.