Ashes diary: Tim Paine and Justin Langer prove their worth while England careers are on the line

Justin Langer and Tim Paine
Justin Langer and Tim Paine

With Sunday's events at Old Trafford meaning Australia have retained the Ashes, Richard Mann pays tribute to Justin Langer and Tim Paine and considers the ramifications for a number of England players and their international careers.

Paine and Langer the deadly duo

Rewind to the aftermath of the ball-tampering scandal: Darren Lehmann and Steve Smith resigning from their positions as head coach and captain in emotional press conferences before South Africa ruthlessly dismantled what little fight the tourists had left, going on to win a generally high-quality series that was sadly overshadowed by the desperate events at Newlands that left Australian cricket in turmoil.

18 months on and Australian cricket has found its swagger again. Its fans have fallen back in love with the baggy green and the players who wear it following an Ashes campaign that has been planned with military precision and carried out with the efficiency of The Wehrmacht, culminating with the retention of that famous urn that, as Tim Paine said on Sunday, 'means so such to so many.'

Current head coach Justin Langer and Paine will likely slip under radar as Steve Smith's 671 runs in the series so far have ground England's bowlers into the dirt and rightly earned him top billing both here and back in Australia.

Not too far behind Smith is Pat Cummins, the number one ranked bowler in the world who is now drawing comparisons with the great Dale Steyn having consistently delivered some of the best and most sustained spells of fast bowling we have seen on these shores since the likes of Andrew Flintoff and Brett Lee lit up in the 2005 Ashes.

Nevertheless, what has been achieved by Langer and Paine, in particular, should not be underestimated and both deserve a huge amount of credit for bringing Australian cricket back from the dead, not only off the field but also on it.

Australian fans might be in love with their team now but aside from the general feeling of distrust and disappointment towards the players for their behaviour off the field, the cricket they were producing on the field was a far cry from the glory days of Australian cricket.

A humbling 5-0 thrashing on their limited-overs tour of England in 2018 was then followed by a sobering defeat to visiting India in the Australian home summer. The chances of returning to these shores this year and retaining the Ashes appeared slim.

Langer inherited a side from Lehmann that needed a new identify, the Put-bull style, in your face cricket that was encouraged under the latter's reign and carried out dutifully by vice-captain David Warner and others had been rejected by the Australian public and the rest of the players, many of whom were still in the infancy of their international careers, needed to find a new way forward.

It helped that Langer left his role with Western Australia and the Perth Scorchers with an outstanding reputation and a record of winning trophies and he has always had the respect of his players, in part as a result of the glittering playing career he enjoyed.

Under his stewardship, Langer has ensured Australia have kept their competitive edge on the field whilst helping developing young men with the qualities needed to be more rounded human beings off the field.

It was noticeable that in the immediate aftermath of Ben Stokes' miracle century at Headingley, the Australian players and support staff were some of the first to offer their congratulations to the England all-rounder.

Jack Leach rushes to congratulate Ben Stokes
Jack Leach rushes to congratulate Ben Stokes

If Langer is the headmaster, the one who will always offer a helping but is not to be crossed, Paine is the perfect school captain, the smart kid who can get the others to follow his lead, cool enough to keep the Warner's of this world in check but wise enough command respect from the likes of Smith and Cummins.

Paine's story is a remarkable one. A Test debutant against Pakistan at Lord's back in 2010, his exceptional glovework saw him earmarked for international honours from a young age with his stylish batting allowing Australia to believe they had found Adam Gilchrist's long-term successor.

A strong showing on Australia's subsequent tour to India, including scores of 92 and 59, had seemingly set Paine on the course for a long and distinguished international career but then disaster struck.

A broken finger and five operations to repair it robbed Paine of almost two seasons of cricket, seeing him first fall down the Australian wicketkeeping pecking order and then ultimately, almost bring about his premature retirement from the game in 2017.

Matthew Wade's return to Tasmania had seen Paine temporarily lose the gloves for his state but Australia were still watching from the shadows, all too aware that he remained the best gloveman in the country and a richly-talented batsman if able to recapture his best form.

A shock recall for the Ashes series Down Under later that year turned Paine's employment plans on their head and having kept beautifully throughout that 4-0 triumph over England, he had made such an impression that he was the man Australia turned to at Newlands when Smith was forced to step down.

Paine took then took the first steps in bringing Australian cricket back to life, immediately speaking of his desire for his team to earn back the respect of the cricketing world with its behaviour on and off the field. He wanted his Australia to be one that its fans could be proud of again, one that would play hard and with pride but also with respect for the game and their opponents.

Tim Paine and Justin Langer celebrate
Tim Paine and Justin Langer celebrate

Paine batted manfully on that tour, standing up to the might of an outstanding South African attack in making 215 runs at an average 43.00 and he was again leading from the front a few months later when batting for 194 balls to defy Pakistan's spinners on a day-five pitch in Dubai and earn his side an unlikely draw.

This summer, even when his batting has faltered and put his own place in the side under scrutiny, Paine has kept his composure, navigating his troops through a high-pressure series whilst speaking openly and with frank honestly to the media throughout.

Following the bruising defeat at Headingley, he was the first to admit his own mistakes and promised to put them right. He was truthful and straight talking and it was refreshing - a far cry from the lies and deceit of Newlands. And as it proved, Paine was true to his word.

10 days later, Paine made a fighting, if not pretty, half-century to help Smith guide Australia to a big first innings total at Old Trafford before producing the biggest and, arguably, most significant plays of his entire captaincy.

Having juggled his impressive pack of fast bowlers throughout the series, Paine made a number of crucial and, ultimately, match-winning decisions at Old Trafford.

Having been proven correct in giving the new ball to the returning Mitchell Starc on the fourth morning, Paine's decision to hand it back to Cummins a few hours later for the start of England's second innings was a masterstroke.

Cummins' unwavering accuracy has been a hallmark of the brilliant series he has enjoyed and Paine knew that if Australian were to make the most of the seven overs they had to bowl at England before the close of play, Cummins would again be the man.

Sure enough, Cummins was bang on the money, ripping out Rory Burns and captain Joe Root to leave England tottering on 18-2 overnight.

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Paine continued to marshal his troops well on the final day, shifting his pack nervelessly and imploring his bowlers to stay patient, just as they hadn't in Leeds.

Nevertheless, it seemed for a short time that it might not be enough as Jamie Overton and Jack Leach dug in and took England within 16 overs of securing a draw that would have kept their own Ashes hopes alive.

Once again, Paine had the answer. This time throwing the ball to part-time leg-spinner Marnus Labuschagne who spun the ball hard into the rough and saw the fifth delivery of his over spit at Leach and thump into his glove on the way to short leg.

England's resistance was all but over. Paine's move was a stroke of genius and one which ensured he is the first Australian captain since 2001 to successfully retain the Ashes in England.

Paine will be remembered for years to come for that Labuschagne bowling change, the one that secured the Ashes for Australia, but for him and Langer, the resurrection of Australian cricket began some time ago and they both deserve all the credit that comes their way.

Careers on the line at The Oval

England have surprised nobody by announcing an unchanged 13-man squad for the fifth Test at The Oval which starts on Thursday, not because there shouldn't be changes - clearly there should be - but because the stubbornness of this England selection panel means we have come to expect nothing different.

England's attempt to mask the poor initial selection of Jason Roy saw him moved to number four in the batting order in Manchester but he again struggled against Australia's relentless pace attack while Joe Denly was switched positions in the order for the second time in the summer to facilitate the reshuffle.

Jason Roy''s resistance is over at Old Trafford
Jason Roy is bowled at Old Trafford

With his foot movement and balance as poor as it is, it is hard to see Roy having consistent success against the moving ball anytime soon and winter tours to New Zealand and South Africa offer little hope of any respite on that score.

Like Roy, Denly also needs runs at The Oval but despite only averaging 25.50 in the series so far, consecutive half-centuries in the last two Tests and a technique more sound than most in the England team has offered hope that he could have a Test career further than this summer.

Without nailing down his spot, Denly has certainly acquitted himself well against a fine attack and he surely deserves extra credit for making a battling 53 at Old Trafford having moved from number four to open the batting at only a few days notice.

After only seven matches which have seen Denly show definite shoots of promise, it is certainly unfair to write him off but one player we do know plenty about is Jonny Bairstow, a veteran of 68 Tests and someone who appears to have reached his ceiling.

Bairstow has always been a batsman first and a wicketkeeper second, someone who has worked hard on his glovework to help his England cause, but as a keeper he has never been world class, - like a Paine or even Ben Foakes - and it was his output with the bat that set him apart form those pushing to replace him in the England team.

Now, with a career average of 35.57, it's time to accept that Bairstow isn't a world class batsman either and with his average since the start of 2018 only 26.38, how much more rope he will be afforded remains to be seen.

Jonny Bairstow is out bowled again
Jonny Bairstow is out bowled again

One of his apparent competitors for the gloves is Jos Buttler, but his own career numbers make for even less impressive reading and like Bairstow, he too has struggled in this series.

In Buttler's favour is his apparently superior glovework to Bairstow's and the feeling that he is willing to adapt his attacking approach to Test cricket, something he did so well when battling for his 34 as he tried in vain to save the Test on Sunday.

Buttler might still be evolving as a Test cricketer, where another loose drive and the losing his middle stump in England's first innings in Manchester tells you that Bairstow is not.

The Ashes might be gone, but as Joe Root pointed out on Sunday, the fifth Test remains a big match, one from which the series can still be drawn.

For the likes of Roy, Denly, Bairstow and Buttler there is the added significance of knowing that they are playing for their Test careers.

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