Tim Paine holds the Trans-Tasman Trophy
Ryan Pierse / © Getty Images


Tim Paine looked like a leader, then became one

Australia's Test captain overcame injury, took the hot seat, and found empathy

Daniel Brettig  |  

Melbourne, December 2010. As Australia, marshalled by a finger-broken and frazzled Ricky Ponting, are being belted out of the MCG and the Ashes by England, conversations in the Cricket Australia match-day function room turn from a chastening present to an uncertain future.

Asked who will captain Australia when Ponting's days are done, an extremely senior CA official replies, "Our next long-term captain isn't in the team yet, we've got to find a way to get him in." The cricketer being spoken of was 25-year-old Tim Paine.

There have long been questions about what may have happened had Paine not had a broken finger far worse than Ponting's. Captaincy was an issue discussed in depth by Australia's domestic and international coaches and selectors at the time, not least because Michael Clarke had never been everyone's first choice as a leader of men.

As it was, Paine served as Australia's T20I vice-captain in early 2011, and even shared drinks and chat with Julia Gillard, the prime minister then, as captain of the Prime Minister's XI that faced the English tourists in Canberra.

Back then, in the view of Tim Coyle, Paine's long-time mentor and Tasmania's most decorated state coach, he was on the verge of becoming a regular for Australia in all forms of the game. "People had recognised by that stage that there was something about him and what he might bring as a leader," Coyle says.

Paine went to England on the 2009 Ashes tour, and made his Australia debut in the ODIs

Paine went to England on the 2009 Ashes tour, and made his Australia debut in the ODIs Gareth Copley / © PA Photos/Getty Images

Jamie Cox, who was coming to the end of his career when Paine was first handed a state contract, and went on to join the national selection panel, sat in on the discussions ten years ago when Paine was in consideration for the captaincy. "I can remember going back to our time as selectors and bemoaning that we weren't sure who the next leaders were, that the game had stopped producing them in any great quantities," Cox says. "The choice for leaders inside our national teams - you weren't dealing with a deep pack, and Tim was always well considered as one of those."

So yes, Paine could quite easily have found himself captaining Australia as per that MCG conversation a decade ago. Having settled that question, however, another emerges. Would Paine the wunderkind, who had risen swiftly through the grades and played four Test matches with distinction by November 2010, have been a better leader than the one who then lived through seven years' bad luck, strife and struggle?

Outwardly, at least, Paine had all the qualities a junior coach or selector looks for in a leader. His talent as a wicketkeeper-batsman lay primarily in hands that invited the ball to plop gently into the gloves, a batting technique that made up in technical soundness what it lacked in power, and an attitude of competitiveness that belied the fresh face and blond locks.

"He probably lacked a bit of power and presence early, but he had a really good, rounded game, [was] a great competitor, and understood that his game would develop over time," Coyle says. "That was one of the reasons why Tasmanian cricket invested pretty heavily in him at an early age. In terms of leadership, I think he always presented as someone with a good understanding of the game, and that's pretty important as a young person. Tactically he was aware and he was always prepared to lead by example."

Football also saw these qualities. Paine had already played a senior game, for the Clarence club in Hobart, when cricket's talent spotters concluded they had better snap him up as quickly as possible.

Play 01:35

Nathan Lyon: 'I'm a massive fan of playing under Tim Paine'

"I think when you're contracted at 16, your decision's kind of made up for you," Paine says. "The moment I got offered that senior contract was the moment I made up my mind, and from that time on, I haven't thought about doing a hell of a lot since. I'd just played Tasmanian U-16 footy, but having David Boon and Ricky Ponting to look up to, and the fact I'd been playing a bit of junior cricket for Tasmania since I was 13 or 14 opened my eyes to playing against the best kids in the country, and being able to hold my own gave me a bit more confidence and belief in where I sat in cricket."

For Coyle, who recalls first meeting Paine when he was about 14, there had been little choice but to go earlier with a contracting decision. "We thought, 'Let's get Tim into the system as early as we possibly can, because we think he'll be a fast developer, just purely on what he was bringing to the table as an athlete and a person."

Contracted in that same winter of 2001 was none other than George Bailey, then a relative veteran at 19. "I think one of the things about Tim - he still looks like he could be playing in the Under-19s team now, he's always been that baby-faced person," Bailey says. "He used to thrive on the fact that a lot of opponents thought he was a bit of a pretty boy or a bit of a soft player, which belies or hid his competitiveness and willingness to dig in and do the dirty work, so to speak.

"I think that [came] out of his upbringing of playing some tough backyard cricket in [the Hobart suburb] Lauderdale. He and Wadey [Matthew Wade] are very similar like that in terms of the way they're combative, always have to have the last word, antagonistic-type players. He was just someone who was really intense and professional even from a young age.

"That was the other thing you used to forget about Tim, because having played with him right through my junior stuff, he was always playing two or three years above his age group as the wicketkeeper. You used to forget he was that bit younger. His ability to work up levels was very evident from a young age, and just the way he prepared. Really diligent, very professional, and a very good observer of those around him, particularly when he was around the best players that Tassie had on offer, the [Michael] Di Venutos or the Coxes, Ponting when he was around. Painey used to soak every little piece up that they offered."

With George Bailey in 2019.

With George Bailey in 2019. "A lot of opponents thought he was a bit of a pretty boy, which belies his competitiveness and willingness to dig in and do the dirty work," Bailey says Paul Kane / © Getty Images

Cox, by then winding down a career that had taken him to almost everything but a baggy-green cap, speaks of what Paine brought to a squad that contained local talents, interstate soldiers of fortune, and the rookies Coyle would mould into the state's first Shield-winning team.

"He was always pretty cheeky, pretty witty, fun to have around. Always talented. My early recollection was probably having opposition players take the piss out of me for the fact we look a bit similar when we bat. My memories of having Tim and George and those guys around just as I was finishing up were pleasant. I just remember them being really good young people who became even better, slightly older people."

Until last summer, the answer to the question "How many first-class hundreds has Tim Paine made?" had been the same since 2006: one. A double-century on a flat WACA Ground surface was the one time that Paine moved beyond handy-score territory, but this did not mean he lacked a reputation with the bat.

A critical part of Coyle's vision for turning Tasmania into the nation's best domestic side was to play a street-fighting brand of cricket on increasingly grassy surfaces at Bellerive Oval.

"Tim's coaching career developed as my playing career did," Paine says of his coach. "We went through the same stages together, so he was someone I always looked up to. My wicketkeeping is where it started, then he became my head coach and probably became more than just a cricket coach for me. He was someone I went to for advice on a number of things. He certainly helped not only my cricket but my leadership stuff - he helped me become a better person, so he's certainly the No. 1.

"I still remember when I first went into the Tasmanian squad as a 16-year-old. Shane Watson sat me down and really helped me out in those first few years. Another guy was David Saker, who really took a few of us younger guys under his wing and made us feel like we were a bit more accepted in the senior group. Back then it wasn't always the done thing - the young guys were made to work pretty hard, whether you had net sessions or whatnot."

Paine talks to PM Julia Gillard and Paul Collingwood in January 2011, the day before he captained the Prime Minister's XI against England. (Note swollen finger)

Paine talks to PM Julia Gillard and Paul Collingwood in January 2011, the day before he captained the Prime Minister's XI against England. (Note swollen finger) Stefan Postles / © Getty Images

Duly educated, Paine was on many occasions the clean-up merchant after the Tigers' top order had fallen victim to the often extravagant swing and seam on offer.

"Painey won us a couple of games with 50 or 60 not-outs in second innings, which back then were equivalent to hundreds," Bailey says. "If you were getting fifties and sixties on those wickets, it was an extraordinary effort. You were just seeing a man who had a determination to get through, to find a way."

"There were a lot of the things that could be viewed as challenges - weather throughout winter or isolation or small population, whatever it might be. Coyley just found ways to turn those into positives, or found ways to say, 'How can we turn that into a competitive advantage?' That's something I see at times in Painey too."

Between the start of the 2007-08 summer and Paine's finger injury in November 2010, only Bailey, Dan Marsh and Ed Cowan made more runs at Bellerive than Paine's 633 at 37.23. He passed 50 seven times, but with a top score of 74 there were no big hundreds to inflate Paine's average. These were tough runs at the right times.

A couple of these games, against South Australia in late 2008, and New South Wales in early 2009, brought victories for Tasmania in fourth-innings chases and earned Paine the respect and admiration of opponents who zipped plenty of balls past his outside edge but could not unsettle him with word or deed. "We bowled absolutely junk to him," one of those opponents recalled, underlining that Paine's presence was enough to get bowlers off their line and length.

"I always described him as 'looks like Jane, plays like Tarzan,'" Coyle says. "Through 2007 to 2011 - that coincided with the time where we changed the way we went about our game, and the environment in Hobart changed in terms of playing home games at Bellerive, on a wicket that was bowler-friendly a lot of the time.

Made in Tassie: Paine in a Shield game against Queensland in 2013. Tasmania moved to snap Paine up early when he was undecided between football and cricket

Made in Tassie: Paine in a Shield game against Queensland in 2013. Tasmania moved to snap Paine up early when he was undecided between football and cricket Mark Metcalfe / © Getty Images

"Some of those innings he played during that period - and it often happened that you could be four wickets down for not many pretty quickly - Tim would find a way with the lower order to put together some outstanding partnerships that would give us a competitive edge or at least keep us in the game early. That fighting character and his ability to adjust to the circumstances and put a high price on his wicket just showed me there was that toughness about this player that belies his looks."

The national selectors took notice too. By 2009 Paine was keeping wicket for Australia in limited-overs games in England, as Brad Haddin recovered from a finger broken during the Ashes. Paine made his first and still only international hundred on that tour at Trent Bridge, his ebullient celebration capped with the words "You f**king beauty", and was then part of the team that lifted the Champions Trophy in South Africa.

"I was always batting in the top order," he says. "When I was a younger kid, I was seen as someone who had a nice technique but couldn't really hit the ball, so most of the time the coaches would put me at the top and just tell me to bat for as long as I could. That's what Adam Gilchrist obviously changed, it went from batting for as long as you could to trying to score as fast as you can.

"While it's been exciting, it's also made life quite daunting for young guys, but I think what they've done is raise the bar for everyone and everyone's now chasing that level of excellence, and what we're seeing is better and better wicketkeeper-batsmen around the world."

Apart from impressing with his top-order batting and neatness behind the stumps, something else was also coming to the fore: leadership skills burnished by junior captaincy of his state and country.

"Leadership of younger teams is not as high-pressure, I guess," Paine says. "I remember being very honoured to be the Aussie U-19 captain, but the thing that stood out was the first time I went to a country like Bangladesh and just the eye-opening experience that it was, having never experienced anything like it. I remember the first week we were there, all the boys being in shock about how different it was to what we're used to in Australia, so that was certainly a challenge for young Australian men to go and see that.

"I also remember playing spin and thinking, 'How hard is this.' And nothing's changed in the 15 or 16 years [since]."

Paine's captaincy style has been unlike that of Michael Clarke, whose tenure was often fractious

Paine's captaincy style has been unlike that of Michael Clarke, whose tenure was often fractious Shaun Botterill / © Getty Images

In 2004, the Australian Cricket Board Cricket Academy moved from Adelaide to become Cricket Australia's Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, largely because of the better weather, which afforded chances for year-round training and playing. If the academy's original home was synonymous with the likes of Ponting, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn, Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath, then the new headquarters saw more of Paine than just about anyone else.

"We developed so many squads and groups for leadership, mentoring, physical fitness, strategy, and he was always in them because he was such a talented individual and such a good bloke," the former CA cricket manager Michael Brown says. "He was at the academy regularly because of the multi-skill set he had.

"He would always be there, first bloke to come from training, come from the nets, come from the top oval, down to personally welcome all the young kids or people he hadn't met, who had just come into the state cycle. We had a lot of young kids from overseas in that programme, and he would always come talk to them, make everyone feel welcome.

"He was the go-to person when we needed a guest speaker or we needed someone to engage with others, always willing to help out, always around. Gosh, he was up there a lot! He was just that sort of guy. The goodwill he spread for CA, the relationship between states and CA, Tim did a lot [for it], that was certainly one of his great achievements."

For older men in positions of management, coaching or selection, Paine came across as uncommonly willing to speak, and to speak up.

"I think I was probably given opportunities for my leadership because as a young person in particular I was probably quite confident and happy to say what I thought," Paine says. "I think I've always maintained a pretty high training standard and I think as a young guy and being a wicketkeeper, I always had a bit to say out on the field and was extremely competitive. So that's where it stemmed from."

Paine with wife Bonnie and son Charlie at the MCG on Christmas day last year

Paine with wife Bonnie and son Charlie at the MCG on Christmas day last year Darrian Traynor / © Getty Images

Bailey, who replaced Marsh as captain of Tasmania in 2009, reckons that Paine's concept of leadership needed to evolve from that of an outstanding junior cricketer, always leading by example, to one of a person with a more rounded recognition of what people around him needed. It is open to conjecture whether Clarke, for one, made that jump.

"I think one of the challenges for Tim was the standards he set for himself and the way he used to prepare and get himself ready, leaving no stone unturned. He held others to the same account, and he could just be a bit hard on people," Bailey says. "One of the things he found difficult to do was just to sit himself in other people's shoes to understand a little bit of what they were going through or to have a bit of empathy.

"For Painey he would've generally been the best player in his age group. Certainly in Tasmania he played up a number of age groups over a number of years, so it's easy - you go out, you perform and you inspire and lead your team-mates that way. But it's a real challenge when you've led that way and you're going through some challenges around performing yourself, be that through injury or form."

Initially, Bailey and Paine were almost good cop, bad cop - the empathetic captain and his hard-bitten gloveman. "While we got along really well and were quite close, we were also quite different," Paine says. "When I was younger I was a bit hot under the collar and George was a year or two older than me and a bit more measured, so he would always be the voice of reason, and I could drive the boys at training and drive it out in the middle.

"Sometimes I could come off a bit aggressive and George was always great at harnessing that bit of extra energy I had and channelling it in a good way. Or if I had upset someone by going a bit too hard, then he was great at patching that up."

Parallel to what was happening in the Tasmania dressing room, the national team's inner sanctum was not exactly the happiest. When Paine toured England and India in 2010, he was witness to the fractious environment developing between the leadership of Ponting and the national coach Tim Nielsen on the one hand and the often contrarian nature of the vice-captain and heir apparent, Clarke, on the other.

Paine made 92 in the first innings in the Mohali Test of 2010, where Australia first trialled their controversial 360-degree internal feedback process

Paine made 92 in the first innings in the Mohali Test of 2010, where Australia first trialled their controversial 360-degree internal feedback process Pal Pillai / © Getty Images

This was never more evident than in an early attempt at 360-degree feedback after a day's play, first tried during the Mohali Test against India, where Paine made 92 battling runs in the first innings, and the tourists ultimately lost by one wicket to VVS Laxman. Clarke was quite openly in dressing room conflict with Ponting, Nielsen and Shane Watson during the match, and things did not improve much in the next Test, in Bangalore. Haddin returned from injury for the Ashes at home, and the feedback concept was dropped after an innings defeat in Adelaide.

"I think those guys [Ponting and Nielsen] recognised there was going to be a bit of a changing of the guard and it was going to be important that we developed people to be able to take the team forward," Paine says. "They decided the best way to do that was to go that approach [360-degree feedback] and try to have a bit more input and talk from other players.

"There's always a fine line between getting everyone's opinion and having too many opinions. I think there's a real skill in [managing] that. Certainly what we try to do now is not always involve absolutely everyone in the decision-making process, but I try to gather as much information and as many opinions as I possibly can, which will then help form the actual decision we do make."

Paine was omitted from the Test team because Haddin had returned to fitness. He stayed out of contention when he had his own finger injury, courtesy a Dirk Nannes roaster in a T20 charity fixture at the Gabba in November that year. "It's a huge summer for Australian cricket, so to miss out on that completely is shattering," he said on his way to Melbourne for the first of no fewer than seven finger operations.

Undoubtedly Paine was increasingly viewed as the right sort of character to carry the team forward after the fashion of Ponting, and by December's Boxing Day Test, previously abstract conversations about future leadership were becoming more urgent. But though he made appearances in the second half of the season, Paine's finger was still in a bad way and would get progressively worse. His fast track to leadership in Australian cricket looked like it was being replaced by a slow fade to black.

Darn digit: Paine's problem finger in late 2018, after it took a hit in the Adelaide Test

Darn digit: Paine's problem finger in late 2018, after it took a hit in the Adelaide Test Quinn Rooney / © Getty Images

Ed Cowan called it "the Hungarian sausage". Paine's discoloured, swollen, patched-up finger was not a pretty sight in the weeks, months and years that followed. Such was the break that the bones had splintered into multiple pieces, making the usual reconstructive work of plates and screws very difficult. At the worst of many moments of frustration and anger, Paine spoke with Coyle about taking an extreme step.

"He was talking about cutting it off at one stage, which was a bit extreme, just so he could play," Coyle recalls. "I said, 'Nah I think you're going to need your finger to bat and also keep, that doesn't really make any sense.'"

Paine and Coyle needed to find technical solutions to allow him to play effectively, but there were also mental struggles around confidence in both the finger and the new methods chosen to replace the old. Compounding all this was the fact that over a couple of years, both knew that the finger seemed only ever one slight mis-glove away from another break - a movement in the plate holding the finger together, or a looseness in the screws doing likewise.

"He was desperate to play and I was desperate to have him in my team," Coyle says. "I was his go-to wicketkeeping person, so as well as coaching the team, I had a high involvement in trying to get him back on the park as a wicketkeeper. So we spoke a lot about different ways of doing that. As soon as we got the all-clear from the doctors and we were able to train, he'd be excited, ringing up saying, 'Right, I can start catching.'

"We would spend quite a bit of time trying to work through different ways of protecting him but trying to advance him and get him back into the team. Unfortunately we had some setbacks, and some of those were innocuous. He'd catch a ball that was thrown or hit really slowly and you could just tell, from the look on his face, that it didn't feel right, better stop. We'd get an x-ray, it's busted again, or the plate's moved, or the screws have come out.

"I think for me to go through a really difficult time personally with my cricket has made me be able to relate to my players and team-mates a lot better" © Getty Images

Anger at how events had so conspired against him and at being unable to play even led to a period in which Paine and Coyle agreed he needed to spend some time away from the Tasmania squad to ease the frustration. "I recall we had a 'come in when you feel the need' policy," Coyle says. "He remained in contact and part of the group, helped out when he could, but not compulsory basis.

"It was a seriously tough environment, there's no doubt. The mental anguish that he went through, and to be part of it, because I was desperate for him to be in the team. We were hellbent on continuing to be successful and the best team in Australia, and we felt we needed him in that group. At the end he did get it right. He got to someone else who had a look at it, and I think it was one surgery and it was fixed."

While Paine dealt with the frustrations of seeing his previously bright prospects dimmed by the forced sabbatical, Haddin, childhood friend Wade, Peter Nevill, Ben Dunk, and even Cameron Bancroft, all kept wicket for Australia in various formats, even if the national selectors tried to keep Paine in mind with Australia A call-ups in 2012 and 2013.

As an articulate presence in Australian cricket, Paine was still visible. Prior to the launch of the Big Bash League in 2011, he was captured on video getting his hair redone after a colouring attempt went astray. The bright orange, recalling the hair of the Essendon rover Darren Bewick, was simmered down to a more tasteful blond in time for the photo shoots. Paine was prominent, too, in the BBL itself, providing a consistent presence behind the stumps and with the bat for the Hobart Hurricanes.

"I was just told basically one morning that I was going to open the batting and to have a bit of a go," Paine says.

"I played a game against NSW when I was quite young. George was captain at the time and Coyley was coach and they said, 'Go out, play your shots but try to be quite aggressive' and it came off for me a little bit that day, and I just gained in confidence. I'd just had a change of mindset for what I thought was possible for me.

Girish TS / © ESPNcricinfo Ltd

"I'd put a bit of a limit on myself as a young player rather than that just freeing me up to explore what I could do. I hit a lot of fours but I wasn't hitting any sixes, so a week or two after that, I remember going down to a local ground with a friend and a bag of balls. He threw them and I basically slogged them and figured out where my areas were, where I actually could hit a six - [getting] that confidence of knowing you can do it and where your areas are and what ball you're looking for. My T20 game in that early period of the Big Bash expanded quite quickly."

Also evident, particularly on the stump microphones, was his knack for witty sledging, and so too a somewhat abrasive countenance in dealing with his fielders. At the same time, Paine was shuffling to the fringes of the Tasmanian state side. His Sheffield Shield averages from 2013 to 2016 tell a drooping tale: 29.9, 31.53, 17.76 and 6. Bailey and Coyle agree that it was in the humble surrounds of the Tasmanian 2nd XI, which he led for much of 2016-17, that Paine was able to reconcile with his changing fortunes and become the maturing figure who would ultimately be handed the Australian captaincy.

"He found that year to be really beneficial," Bailey says, "helping some of the younger players understand the ebbs and flows of the game and going out and scoring runs one day, getting a duck the very next day. So as funny as it sounds, for Tim, going through some struggles himself was one of the catalysts for one of the great developments in his leadership, and that was empathy and walking a little bit in other people's shoes. I think a calmness and a maturity developed. He certainly seemed a lot more accepting of his place in the cricketing landscape.

"He still harboured great desire to get back to the top level, but [had] a bit of a broader view of life as opposed to just on a cricket field. And he started to perform really well at the back end of that year."

Paine met his future wife Bonnie on one of his trips to Melbourne for finger surgeries, and in 2017 they were looking at raising a family and, famously, he was considering a "real job" with Kookaburra should Tasmania move on from him.

"I reckon his daughter had just been born," Bailey says. "He was preparing as well as he could and training as hard as he ever had, and if he was going to perform, he was, and if he didn't, he was okay with that.

From one captain to another: Paine receives his baggy green from Ricky Ponting at Lord's in 2010

From one captain to another: Paine receives his baggy green from Ricky Ponting at Lord's in 2010 Hamish Blair / © Getty Images

"It was just a maturity, having gone through that whole ebb and flow - young player, playing for Australia, world at your feet, even talk when he first played for Australia of being a future leader, through the whole rollercoaster of long periods of being injured, long periods of challenging form. I think that just gave him a really broad sense of what's important in his own life and what's important in leadership, and how can I just live that day to day, regardless of what's happening on the cricket field."

In an interview early in 2017, after Marsh was sacked as Tasmania coach, Paine had no idea whether or not he would get a contract for the following season. But he had by that stage returned as Australia's T20 wicketkeeper, a promotion that was the start of his return to international ranks for Test duty and ultimately captaincy. There was, as Bailey has said, a sense of acceptance and even peace about his circumstances. Paine had learned, he acknowledges, how to improve himself by thinking first of others.

"I started to realise that I had to just make sure I'm nice and calm and level all the time, and that was something I picked up from George and from Dan Marsh in my early days," he reflects. "I seem to have a bit more empathy these days, whereas at the start I couldn't get my head around guys doing certain things. I think when you have it taken away from you and you're the one who's struggling with form and you're trying your best, sometimes the harder you try, the worse it gets.

"I think for me to go through a really difficult time personally with my cricket has made me be able to relate to my players and team-mates a lot better. In the last few years I've had an opportunity I never thought I was going to get, just playing for Australia again, so my whole outlook has changed. I'm still as competitive as ever, but I'm a whole lot more relaxed, a lot more understanding, and that real empathy for my own struggles has shaped the way that I want to lead."

In February 2017, when recalled to the Tasmania Shield side, Paine made just 14 in his one innings, against New South Wales. But he took five catches, none better than the last: an edge off Nick Larkin, standing up to the stumps to Sam Rainbird's medium pace. It provided a reminder of the enormous wicketkeeping skill he possessed. By year's end Paine was back in the Test team, and the tale had turned entirely.

The Tim Paine who captains Australia now, and but for Covid-19 would have done so in a Test match in Bangladesh this week, has not quite been able to take his batting to the levels of promise he exhibited before the finger fracture. It is, at a time when Paine has spoken, eloquently and often, about virtually any issue in the game, the one thing that causes the articulate leader to revert occasionally to the chippy tendencies of his more abrasive youth.

"I think he still has issues with batting because of his finger," Coyle says. "It's probably more mental now than physical, but being that index finger on your bottom hand, it's an exposed digit, particularly against the pace bowling, and he'd probably admit it himself that it's never felt the same since he's had that finger issue.

Batting for Australia A in 2012, in a game where he made 60. Note the bottom-handed grip and extra padding around the right index finger

Batting for Australia A in 2012, in a game where he made 60. Note the bottom-handed grip and extra padding around the right index finger Chris Hyde / © Getty Images

"I think it's affected his batting but I don't think it's had a similar effect on his wicketkeeping - that's been the part of his game that's come through pretty much unscathed if not got better.

"I'm sure there's a lot of mental challenges around all that, and I wouldn't blame him for being a bit short with that question, because I reckon he gets asked that many times. I think he's got a pretty good understanding of where he needs to contribute with the bat and to what level. He can have some lean periods, most players do, but then he'll contribute in crucial stages like no one else because that's what he's very good at. In the end it's a three-pronged exercise for him - he's got to lead well, he's got to captain well, and he's got to contribute with the bat."

Typically of someone who, as Coyle puts it, "has never forgotten where he comes from", Paine's most insightful answer about his finger arrived in a newspaper interview with the Launceston Examiner earlier this year:

"It's never going to be perfect. But I've got to the stage I can manage it pretty well. It gets a bit sore when our big fast bowlers are bowling a lot of bouncers. It gets in the way of them because I catch predominantly right-handed and it's my right index finger. So it gets a bit sore after a Brisbane or Perth Test. It doesn't give me too many troubles day to day. It slightly affects my batting because I can't make a fist and it took me a long time to readjust my grip, and my game went from someone who was quite strong cutting and cover driving to someone who's now predominantly more leg side, and that's probably the change of grip and being more dominant with my bottom hand."

Even then, Paine was able to wring some extra performance out of his batting last summer, largely through taking the attack to the bowling in a way that, during his Bellerive Oval greentop days, might occasionally have been seen as a little too cavalier. He made a sprightly 79 at the MCG against New Zealand in the Boxing Day Test, strolling along at near enough to 60 per 100 balls after Steven Smith, Travis Head and Wade dropped anchor.

"I certainly haven't made any technical changes. All the changes there have been [about] how I want to play and how I want to enjoy my cricket, particularly when I'm batting," he says. "I think I play my best when I'm like that, but sometimes in the heat of a Test match and international cricket, you can forget that.

"Sometimes the harder you try, the worse you get, and that's certainly the case with my batting - the more I think about it, the harder I try to defend, the worse I tend to get. So for me it's about enjoying it, about trying to be quite attacking, and when I'm like that, I've done a hell of a lot better. Brad Haddin's been a huge supporter of me. He always tells me to go out and bat like a wicketkeeper. It doesn't work for everyone, but for me, the less I think about it, the less pressure I put on myself, the more I relax, and the better I play."

Paine on Tim Coyle:

Paine on Tim Coyle: "He was someone I always looked up to. He helped me become a better person, so he's certainly the No. 1" Will Russell / © Getty Images

But if Coyle, Bailey, Brown, Cox and Paine all agree that there may be an alternative universe in which he made far more runs and hundreds, they are equally certain that cost must be weighed against the benefits his journey provided. Chiefly, they have allowed for Australian cricket to be led by a multidimensional character with broad life experience and empathy for a wide variety of people and backgrounds - as was seen in Paine's dealings with media, firefighters in rural New South Wales last season, and those looking for advice in the time of the coronavirus.

Bailey's admiration for Paine has to do as much with him taking on the job in the aftermath of the Newlands scandal and making the Test team his own as with anything else. "Certainly when I captained the one-day team, I very much was a caretaker captain, waiting for Michael to inevitably come back from an injury, and even the T20 captaincy, because I took that on at the same time as I debuted," he says. "There were some challenges in that, in terms of leading the way you'd like to lead, versus perhaps leading the way you felt you should. So my admiration for Painey in the role and in the time he took over as the Australian captain and the way he's gone about it, it's looked to me as if he's had real clarity from day one.

"He's been really clear on the type of leader and person he wanted to be. I think it would've been really easy for him to lead a different way. That's just Tim's evolution as a person and how he's led throughout the years. He is a great observer and watcher, and there would have been a range of people across the years who he would've cherry-picked from, and he would've been able to adapt that to his own leadership style."

Says Cox: "People now see his leadership ability. I've resisted, I didn't think I'd watch The Test. I thought: I've been lucky enough to live inside the rooms, I think I'm going to look at that through cynical eyes. But I've looked at it and loved it, absorbed it and thought, 'Well done', not just for Tim but for Justin, Finchy and others, because I thought it'd come across as quite fabricated, but it's actually come across quite authentically, I reckon.

"Tim's become an extraordinary leader, an extraordinary ambassador, and at the same time I feel his keeping has gone to another level. His batting is holding its own, his batting has good moments, but his keeping is affecting games. Some of his work to Nathan Lyon, in particular, has been fabulous, just so, so good. I couldn't be happier for him, because it was all over, as we know."

For Coyle, the lack of a certain conversation speaks loudest. "Often over the years we've had wicketkeepers elevated to captaincy and straight away some will say, 'You can't do both,'" he says. "There's been no rhetoric about Tim Paine combining his wicketkeeping and his captaincy. Why's that? Because he's actually been very good at both, it hasn't affected his skill with the gloves, nor his thinking as a captain."

Paine's age and history of finger problems have instilled in him a sense of playing for the here and now in a way that fundamentally defined the attitude he takes to every day of the captaincy. "I think we all dream about having the long, successful career, but it's not that easy," he says. "It's something where I'm always constantly resetting goals.

"That real tight-knit camaraderie and team-first approach, I love that feeling when your team just clicks in on that" Bradley Kanaris / © Getty Images

"I remember when I came [back] into that team [in 2017], I thought, 'Geez, if I can just get that far, I'd love to play in a Boxing Day Test,' That was four Tests in. 'I'd love to play in a Perth Test.' That was three Tests in, and then got through it and thought, 'I might go to South Africa here, that'd be a dream come true', then I started to look a bit further and thought, 'Geez, imagine if I can get an Ashes series in England.'

"So for me it's been the most enjoyable part, not worrying too far ahead, not wasting energy on it, just enjoying what's in front of me and setting goals for now, and when I achieve those, go again. At the moment that's working, and with someone at my age, I think that's the way you've got to approach it. If you're looking too far ahead, then you're not focused on the here and now. I think that's also made me enjoy it a hell of a lot more and take things a bit slower and enjoy the moment, rather than always be looking for what's next - next year or next series or next tour."

How can that attitude be fostered in other leaders for the future? Cox believes that cricket must think about ensuring professional players spend enough time away from the game. "I'm a strong advocate for everyone having at least four or five other things in their life that are equally important," he says, "so you can actually invest in those when cricket goes badly. Because you'll have lots of poor days playing cricket where you've just got to have other stuff to keep you going."

Bailey says that the current crop of selectors have a task in finding ways to get younger generations to look outside of themselves. "One of the challenges we have across cricket at the moment is finding ways to give enough people the experiences of what it's like to be a leader," he says. "What it's like to captain a team and what it's like to have to understand your team-mates and work with your team-mates through different challenges, and not just have the luxury of being able to look after yourself."

Paine thinks a combination of empathy and "in the moment" enjoyment can endure beyond his time. "Any team you've had success in, there's always something special, a different type of feeling in that room," he says. "Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on, but that real tight-knit camaraderie and team-first approach, I love that feeling when your team just clicks in on that. I think the most powerful thing in team sport is a team that's driving and striving to that one common goal.

"I think young people have changed a lot. The way you have to speak to people and treat people is completely different to when I was a young guy. I just got told what to do and asked no questions, whereas I find now, particularly the younger players, they want to know why all the time. Barking instructions at young guys doesn't work, it's about getting to know the person, getting to know how they work, and trying to get them to buy in. All the time now I'm thinking of ways to do it differently."

Tim Paine may not be the long-term Australian captain once imagined in the MCG function room. He is instead something more significant. Not a seamless transition but a team-changer.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig