The announcement of the Australia squad for the Ashes last November left a lot of people perplexed. One selection, in particular, did not make sense to most cricket fans -Tim Paine. While Australia's uncertainty about the wicket-keeper role was well-known, Paine's selection was completely out of the blue. The Tasmanian's last Test for his country was way back in 2010. In the last two years, Paine had barely picked up the gloves for his state. His average in domestic cricket over the past four seasons was a mere 19. Paine's only first-class century had come 11 years ago. At the time it was hard to see the rationale behind his inclusion. Quite naturally, the selectors were subject to a lot of criticism for the decision.
After such a controversial selection, the pressure on the player is always huge. But this was no normal series and instead was an Ashes. Even the slightest mistake by Paine was going to attract extreme reactions. However, Australia's comfortable 4-0 series victory ensured that there was no need for anything like that. The Tasmanian did his job to perfection scoring 192 runs in the series at an average of 48 while being a safe hand with the gloves. His impressive performance against England ensured a call-up to the limited overs side and meant he retained his place for the South Africa series.
In South Africa, once again Paine did justice to his selection both with the gloves and the bat by scoring 215 runs in four matches at an average of 43. However, by the end of the series, Tim Paine's life had changed forever. In the third Test at Cape Town, TV cameras showed Cameron Bancroft tampering the ball with a sandpaper. The consequences were huge. Both captain Steve Smith and vice-captain David Warner were implicated in the scandal and banned for a year. A very young and inexperienced side was in need for a leader. The responsibility was given to a 33-year-old Tim Paine, who in five months had gone from being a forgotten outcast to the captain of the national team.
Post the events of Cape Town, the reputation of Australian Cricket was at an all-time low. While they are a team that has never been the neutral's favorite but this time they were out of lovers even at home. The Australian public was angry and the team was in a desperate need of a massive image transformation.
One of the first steps Paine took as captain was to introduce a tradition of shaking hands with the opposition before the match. A practice that is common in football was introduced by Paine to promote goodwill and sportsmanship amidst the competition. The custom was followed in Australia's next two series, in the ODIs against England and the ongoing Tests versus Pakistan.
It was in Dubai last week where Paine got his defining moment. In recent years, Australia's record in the subcontinent has not made for good reading. In the first Test against Pakistan, a familiar story looked all set to repeat. Having lost three wickets in a massive chase of 362, a defeat looked inevitable for Australia going into the final day.
However, the Baggy Greens had different plans. Usman Khawaja often disregarded as a player incapable of playing on slow pitches, produced a career-defining innings of 141 runs, which got Australia close. But it was Tim Paine's determination along with Nathan Lyon which saved the day for Australia. The Tasmanian showed immense grit, perseverance, and patience against a formidable Pakistan bowling attack. The spin duo of Yassir Khan and Bilal Asif was as dangerous as ever but Paine did not give in. With only two wickets in hand, Paine saved the match for Australia with a terrific knock of 61 off 194 balls.
With their two best batsmen ousted and two frontline bowlers injured, Australia had managed to escape defeat against the odds. In what had been a hard year for Australian cricket, the effort of Paine's team brought some glory back to the nation.
What defined Australia's new captain was his reaction after the match. His first action after the last ball was a signal to the dressing room asking his team to not celebrate excessively. He acknowledged in the post-match presentation that his team was second best for most parts of the match. Despite pulling off an impossible draw, Paine did not lose sight of the larger picture. His attitude to the result was one that any team needs if it wishes to be the world's best.
Neither the captaincy nor his spot in the side is permanent for Paine. There is no guarantee for how long he will retain either role. With his age, it is clear that as leader and wicket-keeper, Paine is a stop-gap option for Australian cricket. It won't be surprising if he isn't even in the team in a few months.
Despite that, Paine is making a mark that will always be remembered. In the darkest period for the game in the country, there could hardly be a better man to lead the national team. His abilities as a cricketer are questionable but there is no doubting the man's personality. Historically, Australian cricketers are never easy to like for outsiders but their new captain is certainly an exception.
Australian cricket's future remains in doubt. What the team is capable of is something no one is certain of. But the performance in Dubai has set a precedent. Each team now knows they are still a team which is hard to beat. Even without their two-star players, the world is aware, they are no pushovers
Individually, Paine's story is unique and unlike any other. This time, last year, he was dropped from his state side and was contemplating retirement. Having not played for his national team for seven years, nobody would have even imagined him ever wearing the Baggy Green again. Only a year later, Tim Paine is not just the captain but a national hero.