Paine glimpses a brighter future
A cold, wet Hobart day kept the players for Australia A and England huddled inside their Bellerive Oval changerooms, waiting for the inevitable abandonment that eventually arrived a little after 4pm. It also caused Tim Paine's banged up and arthritic right index finger to feel stiff and sore, a familiar sensation for the wicketkeeper after a saga of breaks and re-breaks that threatened his career.
Paine's finger will never have full feeling or flexibility in it again, but he has learned to deal with the inconvenience as a gloveman and batsman. He has more reason than ever to brave a little discomfort too, as Australia's line of wicketkeeping succession has opened up considerably behind Brad Haddin.
For a time, Paine felt his chance might have passed, as his finger problems coincided with the rise and rise of Matthew Wade. However Haddin's return to take the gloves in all forms of the game has given Paine renewed hope that he will add to the Test matches he played in 2010, in a stint that had appeared to foreshadow a long and fruitful international career for a cricketer of youthful looks but mature countenance.
"I think there is no doubt it has opened up a bit, Brad is obviously the number one but after that who knows, it is about performing," Paine said. "I think whoever does that, and if anything does happen to Brad or he decides to hang them up in the next year or two it will be who is in the best form. That is a good thing for the guys who have probably been back in the order in the last couple of years, it has certainly opened right up."
Paine did not look out of place at all in his four Tests, performing admirably in India where he flirted with a Test century in Mohali and made more runs in Bangalore, all the while keeping wicket with the neatness of a specialist gloveman. However his return home was blighted in the short-lived ACA Allstars fixture against an Australia XI in Brisbane, when a pacy delivery from Dirk Nannes jammed his finger against the bat handle.
He missed most of that summer before resuming prematurely, but two subsequent re-injuries of a digit now bolstered by pins and screws caused enormous pain and considerable doubt about when he might resume. Eventually, it was decided to graft bone from Paine's hip into the finger, which now requires considerable technical adjustments to account for its lack of mobility.
"Basically my hip is my right index finger now, it is probably the strongest part of my body. It is just the movement and jarring and things like that which give me a few issues," he said. "They cut a large chunk out [between the knuckles], went into my hip and pulled a bit of my hip out.
"[Batting] was a big issue coming back, my grip is obviously completely different. Can't really close my bat finger up to the bat and obviously that's how you're taught to hold the bat as a kid. So I found when I came back that I'd middle a ball and it was going nowhere near where I thought it was so that took a little bit of time to adjust but I think I'm really close now to breaking through."
While the finger has been a major hurdle for Paine, it is not his only obstacle. One of the great statistical anomalies of his career is that an innings of 215 for Tasmania as far back as the 2006-07 season remains his only first-class century. Any observer of Paine's sturdy technique and considerable mental strength will find that hard to believe, and so does he, while admitting the drought has started to weigh heavily on his mind.
"In my head it has definitely. I'd like to be scoring a lot more runs and a lot more hundreds," Paine said. "I really felt at the time of the first break that I was on the verge of starting to do that quite consistently and then through a number of things through confidence, to form, to not having played cricket for two years I've really struggled to get back to where I want to be.
"I'm certainly disappointed, I don't hide from that. I haven't done well enough with the bat than my talent should have allowed me to but I think it's more upstairs than anything technical and I think I'm starting to get on top of those confidence issues that arose from what happened with my finger and I'm close to coming out the other end of it."
Paine's feelings of uncertainty were not helped by the state of the Bellerive Oval wicket, or surfaces around the nation in general. The preponderance of result pitches in the Sheffield Shield added to Paine's struggles, but they were no more prominent than on his home turf, where a relaid pitch last summer caused no end of problems for batsmen with its uneven bounce in addition to generous seam movement.
"The thing that really knocked me around here was the up and down bounce," Paine said. "Similar to now I felt I was starting to play reasonably well and get over worrying about being hit, then to play on that pitch at times last year it was right at the front of my mind. I was a bit worried about balls coming forward because they were jumping. I think that threw me a lot , confidence-wise. It looks like it's playing all right now so I'm looking forward to getting a hit in this game."
This game currently has a scorecard showing England 0 for 318, allowing Paine to harbour thoughts of his own large score. Nonetheless, he is committed to maintaining the keeping standards that first helped to get him noticed by the national selectors, and hopes that the former Australia gloveman and selector Rod Marsh will look kindly upon his form.
"I'd like to think they would go back to a wicketkeeper-batsman rather than a batsman-wicketkeeper," Paine said. "At the same time it's going to have to be someone who is scoring runs consistently and I think all wicketkeepers around the country pretty much do their job with the bat . So keeping is always going to be number one, but the Hartleys, Nevills, Wades, they score runs as well so I'm going to have to do the same."
A few runs would not only aid Paine's cause, but also help make that arthritic finger a little easier to ignore.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here