Tim Paine resigned as Australia captain last week
Tim Paine resigned as Australia captain last week

Ashes diary: Australia search for new captain after Tim Paine disgrace

Richard Mann is back with his latest Ashes diary which offers no sympathy for Tim Paine following the 'sexting' scandal that cost him his job.

Published before Cummings was announced as captain on Friday

No sexting, please!

“No sexting jokes, please, I’ve heard them all before”. A line that might well be uttered from the two on-field umpires adjudicating the first Ashes Test in Brisbane on December 8.

Just when you thought cricket couldn’t tarnish its reputation any more ahead of its most historic and prestigious Test series – Azeem Rafiq’s racism allegations against Yorkshire County Cricket Club so serious that they have made us all take a hard look at ourselves and the game we cherish – Cricket Australia once again finds itself in the gutter.

Yes, from high up on its pedestal, Australia’s cricket team managed to make itself look even dirtier and more unpleasant than before. Perhaps the biggest surprise was that this time, it wasn’t David Warner. Instead, the squeaky-clean mask that Tim Paine has been wearing with apparent humility since taking over the captaincy in March 2018 has slipped, initially with his insensitive and plain stupid comments regarding England’s concern about entering yet more strict bio-secure bubbles in Australia, and then finally when he was forced to resign from his position after details of explicit messages between himself and a former colleague at Cricket Tasmania were made public.

The selfie is a firm favourite with social influencers and the like, but it has its drawbacks and Paine being able to take and send pictures of his exposed self within a couple of clicks is most certainly one of them. Bring back the Polaroid.

I’ve grown tired of sledging the older I’ve become, but the manner in which Paine conducted himself towards Joe Root and his England teammates when negotiations about accommodation and quarantine rules in Australia were ongoing has put a target on his back. After last week’s events, England now have plenty of bullets to fire, and 'fire at will' would be my suggestion.

Tim Paine and Virat Kohli clash in Perth
Tim Paine and Virat Kohli clash in Perth

Of course, Paine is no certainty to keep his place in the Australia team for the first Test now the safety net of captaincy has gone, and what I find most incredible about the whole situation is that the 36-year-old fully expects to see out the series before strolling off into retirement a hero. Ricky Ponting might have been afforded a swansong at Perth when he called time on his 168-Test career, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath before him, but Paine really is a poor relation.

Were Paine intent on extending his career past this series, I would suggest sticking with him in the knowledge he remains the best gloveman in Australia, and that the confirmed Test series in Pakistan in the spring will require a top-notch keeper and a handy player of spin. Paine is both. But if he wants to finish before then, Australia need to bring in Alex Carey now and give him the long run that will increase his chances of making the position his own.

More pressing for chairman of selectors, George Bailey, is the need to appoint a new captain. Pat Cummins would appear to be the frontrunner and has already been endorsed by former players such as Warne. Unlike Paine, I don’t think Cummins is wearing a mask and he appears to be a wholly good man and an outstanding cricketer.

Cummins boasts a fine cricket brain, too. You only have to watch his death spells at the end of the recent T20 World Cup to see that. While Mitchell Starc continued to bowl full and fast, Cummins adapted, bowling fast off-cutters almost exclusively. His brilliant 19th over in the semi-final against Pakistan was as much match-winning as Matthew Wade’s heroics with the bat.

The issue is that Australia would be asking an awful lot of their premier paceman – the number one ranked bowler in the world – to pick up captaincy duties in the biggest series of them all. Cummins delivered 211 overs in the 2019 Ashes series in England and was the only Australian seamer to play all five Tests. His workload is sure to be immense once again, but placing even more weight on those broad shoulders might just be asking too much.

Pat Cummins
Pat Cummins

It has been widely reported in the last 24 hours that former captain Steve Smith has also been interviewed for the job. While his reappointment would be sure to draw condemnation in some quarters, given he was forced to resign after the ball-tampering scandal at Newlands, going back to Smith now might be in the best interests of the Australian team given how crucial Cummins’ bowling is to them.

Whatever direction Australia decide to go, the new captain will take over a team that will start as strong favourites in Brisbane, though not one without its distractions and fair share of controversy ahead of a series that should always be about the cricket and nothing else.

For England’s part, they must play on recent events and use them to their advantage. Paine is fair game now – just as he was when he laid into Ravi Ashwin in Sydney almost a year ago – and ensuring he doesn’t sail off into the sunset a hero come January will be a huge motivational factor for Root and his players.

Buttler form a significant boost for Root

When the final Test of last summer between England and India was controversially postponed, lots of column inches were dedicated to politics and the IPL, most of them unfairly directed towards Virat Kohli’s side.

What did go under the radar somewhat was the fact that Jos Buttler would have returned to England’s starting XI for that match, having missed the fourth Test to be at the birth of his second child. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t have been a significant moment, but having been short of runs all summer and with Jonny Bairstow taking the gloves at the Oval, it had seemed plausible that Buttler might not immediately win back his place.

That Root confirmed Buttler would return before the Old Trafford Test was eventually called off reinforced just how important a member of England’s team the Lancashire gloveman is, and how valued he is by Root and head coach, Chris Silverwood.

Joe Root and Jos Buttler celebrate
Joe Root and Jos Buttler celebrate

The wicketkeeper debate in English cricket could go on and on, and while Bairstow's output with the bat over the last few years initially saw him lose his spot in the side, Buttler's value is calculated by more than just his runs and catches. A fine tactician and a highly-respected member of the dressing room, Buttler has been Eoin Morgan’s right-hand man all through England’s recent domination of white-ball cricket and it’s no surprise that Root wants some of that magic for himself.

But being a good character only goes so far, and 257 runs at 28.55 in Test cricket in 2021 once again saw the daggers being sharpened. Had England and India taken to the field for that fifth Test and Buttler again failed, serious questions would have been asked of him ahead of England’s Ashes squad announcement. Nevertheless, I doubt very much that it would have changed Root’s mind. Buttler is Root’s man and he is backing him. If they go down, it seems they will go down together.

It will have been a great relief to Root, then, to see Buttler take the recent T20 World Cup by storm, looking in the best touch he has since the summer of 2020. Buttler ended the tournament with 269 runs and a strike-rate in excess of 150, and while his detractors would be right to point out that the 31-year-old has rarely struggled against the white ball and that Test cricket represents an altogether different challenge, if Australia are banking on Warner’s return to form on the back of his recent T20 exploits, England are surely right to do the same.

The biggest source of encouragement is the manner in which Buttler scored those 269 runs. I’ve watched a lot of Buttler over the last year or so, and frankly, have generally been frustrated to see him look some way short of the player we saw dominate Pakistan in the 2020 Test summer. Even when he struck a century for Rajasthan Royals in the early part of the IPL, I thought much of that innings was ugly and certainly not Buttler at his best.

In the last few weeks it has been vintage, brilliant Buttler. If this dynamic and destructive batsman can take that form to Australia, and get enough protection from England’s top order, Root’s staunch backing of his man might just prove to be a masterstroke.

More Ashes diaries

Follow Richard Mann on Twitter for more Ashes insight and the next Ashes diary

Ashes itinerary

First Test: 8-12 December – Gabba, Brisbane (0000 GMT)

Second Test: 16-20 December – Adelaide Oval, Adelaide (day/night – 0400 GMT)

Third Test: 26-30 December – MCG, Melbourne (2330 GMT, December 25)

Fourth Test: 5-9 January – SCG, Sydney (2330 GMT, January 4)

Fifth Test: 14-18 January – Optus Stadium, Perth (0230 GMT)

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