Australia captain Tim Paine has shut down criticism by former captain Michael Clarke that the national team was trying too hard to be liked. Paine told ESPNcricinfo that Australia were "not concerned about being liked one bit" by opposing teams, and were principally concerned with finding a way to win this summer while regaining the trust and respect of the Australian public.
Clarke made waves with his contention that Australia "won't win s**t" by "worrying about being liked", though his former team-mate Simon Katich quickly asserted that Clarke was "missing the point" in the wake of the Newlands ball-tampering scandal. Paine, who has instituted a custom of shaking hands with opposing teams at the start of a series, said that there was a big difference between earning respect and trying to be liked by opponents in a contest.
He also added that the Australian team's approach had already evolved, from the still stunned group he led onto the field at the Wanderers in the wake of Newlands, to the team who held their ground against Pakistan in Dubai before losing in Abu Dhabi, and now the combination who - reinforced by their best fast bowlers and on home turf - would go toe-to-toe with India.
"No one has spoken about being liked, certainly by the opposition," Paine told ESPNcricinfo. "We've spoken about wanting to get the Australian public's trust and make sure that clearly you want the Australian public and cricket fans to like or love the Australian Test team. Certainly there's that aspect, but from an opposition perspective we're not concerned about being liked one bit."
"We're still going to play hard Australian cricket, as Michael put it, that's not going to change. Clearly Johannesburg was a really strange circumstance and a difficult game to play in for everyone I think, but going into Dubai the guys competed as hard as they could and they'll continue to, and we've got some more senior guys coming back now.
"With Hazlewood, Starc and Cummins, that's only going to help guys grow with confidence around them. With guys like Travis Head and Marcus Harris, when you've got Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc and Patrick Cummins running in, it's a bit easier to play that confident, aggressive style of cricket that Australia want to play and our team certainly wants to play."
The limited-overs captain Aaron Finch had spoken recently about the distinction between playing "hard cricket" for an opposition to cope with and falling into the "easy" trap of trying to put opponents off their games verbally. It was a sentiment that Paine agreed with, stating that part of the "tweaks" the team were trying to make was unlearning what had evolved into an unbecoming habit.
"I totally agree and I think that's one of the small tweaks we're trying to make," Paine said. "I think there's been times in the past where we've gone overboard with that and actually gone away from what we're good at. Our No. 1 strength is our skill, so we've got to play hard cricket in terms of making it difficult for guys to bat against us and to difficult to bowl against us - we want to make it an uncomfortable environment for people to play against us, but we want to do it mainly by our skills.
"At the same time we're going to be up and about and playing that tough, competitive Australian brand of cricket that Australia's always been renowned for, it's just knowing at times we might need to pull it back and make sure we're getting the most important thing right first, and that's our skill."
To that end, Paine said he would give his players the freedom to decide whether they needed the extra spur of an individual contest with an opponent, or simply to concentrate on their own game. Equally, he was adamant that his men would not back down from confrontation if members of the Indian team went looking for one, with the important difference that they would not lapse into abuse.
"It depends on the individual. I know some guys enjoy it, [to] some guys it doesn't matter," Paine said. "In Test cricket and with some of the guys in the Indian side there's going to be times where there's a bit of heat out in the middle, and guys are going to be right into the contest. The focus for us has got to be on delivering our skill as well as we possibly can, so if guys want to get involved in a bit of that stuff to get themselves going, then that's great.
"But we now know the difference between what's right and what's wrong, and what's expected. We're not going to be going over the top, but certainly you've got to stand up for your team and your teammates, and I'm sure when the time comes for that we'll be doing that. But the main focus for us will be to play the best cricket we can."