Captain Paine defying the glovemen's curse

Even the greatest of them start to decline in their mid-thirties, but Paine seems only to be improving

Daniel Brettig
Daniel Brettig
When Ian Healy recently tipped that Tim Paine might be capable of going on as Australia's captain for "three more years", he did not use those words lightly.
Healy, alongside Australia's other longest-term wicketkeepers Rod Marsh, Adam Gilchrist and Brad Haddin, were all subject to a trend so consistent that it seemed almost an immutable fact of being a custodian behind the stumps for the Test team. Immutable, that is, until Paine came along.
No matter how talented or accomplished they were with the bat, whether a left-handed slugger like Marsh, a No. 7 counter-puncher like Healy or Haddin, or an otherworldly talent like Gilchrist, the advance of time and years would inevitably see the wicketkeeper's supply of runs ebb away to a level that forced the selectors to start looking elsewhere.
Marsh had been very much a gamechanger for Australian wicketkeepers, adding the genuine capability of scoring centuries to the repertoire of stumpers called up by Australia, after several generations of handy scorers who nonetheless might find themselves batting anywhere from Nos. 7 through 9 in the order behind an allrounder or two.
But once he had scored the last of his centuries, against England in the Centenary Test in 1977, Marsh's batting returns took a long, slow descent once he returned to establishment ranks after two years of World Series Cricket. His average of 34.30 from 47 Tests at the end of the MCG match dipped to 26.51 by the time of his 96th and final appearance at the SCG against Pakistan in 1984: an average of 19.48 in the remaining 49 Tests.
For Healy, the decline was more sudden but no less pronounced. When he fought his way to a fourth Test hundred, eclipsing Marsh's mark, in the first Ashes Test of the 1988-99 series at the Gabba, he was averaging 29.90, the high-water mark of Heay's career after 107 matches. His final 12 Tests, however, were a tale of woe: his total average slipped to 27.39 as he cobbled just 170 runs at 8.94. Over the same period, even Glenn McGrath managed to do better than Healy - 111 runs at 9.25 with a higher top score, 39 to Healy's 36.
Gilchrist has spoken frankly of his own struggles over the final portion of his own career, having soared so highly he merited comparisons with the greatest batsmen of any age, let alone other wicketkeepers. Perhaps his most famous innings was the 57-ball mauling of England for a century at the WACA in late 2006, but by that stage Gilchrist's fade, from an admittedly incredible high point, was well underway.
After 46 Tests, Gilchrist had been averaging a scarcely believable 61.06 with a strike rate of 83.62 and nine centuries. While Gilchrist would go on to make 17 hundreds in all, his consistency would drop away, and eventually his overall output would suffer too. By the time he retired in early 2008 during the final Test of the "Monkeygate" series against India in 2008, Gilchrist's average was down to 47.6, even if his revolutionary strike rate had dipped only slightly. An average of 37.56 over Gilchrist's final 50 Tests was still outstanding, but somewhat more human.
This brings us to Haddin, who had two dips either side of an unforgettable 2013-14 Ashes series in Australia. Up until the end of the 2010-11 Ashes, Haddin managed to keep his average near enough to 40 over 32 matches, although he also maintained a record of generally making runs in his side's bigger totals with at least one other centurion for the innings. However by late 2013, including time out of the side to be with his ill daughter, Mia, Haddin was back down to an average of 33.97.
When the 2013-14 Ashes concluded, with Haddin having pummeled 493 runs at 61.62, he looked ready for a sustained renaissance. Instead, the late career fade resumed: Haddin's final 12 Tests would reap just 259 runs at 15.23, seeing his overall record dip to 32.98 and like Healy and Marsh a somewhat unflattering portrait of his contributions for most of the time.
Such background was written all over Healy's comments when assessing how Paine was bucking this trend. "I'm expecting him to play for quite long because he started so late - and it looks like he's in great shape physically and doing it well," Healy told the Sydney Morning Herald. "He's got a job to do so that will keep him interested, keep him motivated to get that Australian side on top again and in the hearts of Australians.
"He's led a massive cultural revolution, which has got to be draining, so I don't have a problem if he does surprise me and finish before I reckon he will because he's taken on so much, but I think he's about to reap the rewards and enjoy it a lot more. I've got no problems saying three more years."
That revolution has been as true of Paine's batting as the progress of his team. From moments during the 2019 Ashes when he looked to be over-matched as a batsman, and certainly too conservative, Paine has upped his tempo and his effectiveness: at a time when all of his forebears were trending down, he has compiled 342 runs at 42.75 and a strike rate of 52.29 in eight matches since the end of the Leeds Test in 2019. Healy and Haddin were two of the voices encouraging him to "bat like a wicketkeeper", in other words, attack.
"He tried to bat like Greg Chappell all the time," Healy said. "The batting needs to be natural and free. Bad ball on the legs put it away, cut shot get it on. He was blocking bad balls last year and just surviving very much like a lot of the players did upfront in Adelaide. All I said to him was just put bad balls away, look for them and put them away. If it's a clip to leg, clip it hard. If it's a cut shot, go at it. Bat like a keeper and that's what he's done."
Add to this the fact that Paine is showing a level of enthusiasm and eagerness for improvement that can be hard to maintain the longer any player continues and there appears a sound formula for him to carry on. Paine's most recent News Corp column outlined how Marnus Labuschagne had helped him tweak his batting technique during the Sheffield Shield games that preceded the India series, adjusting his bat pick-up position to sit closer to his back hip - more or less the same spot Steven Smith, Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson have it.
"I've felt pretty good pretty much since I made the change during the South Australian Shield game," Paine said. "So for me it's been about just having more time to become accustomed to it and make it more second nature rather than having to think about it. I can certainly feel that's happening now.
"I'm someone who needs to write a bit of stuff down to remind myself, particularly when it comes to my batting, but I've found the last couple of weeks that little changes now I don't have to think about, and when that's the case I can just watch the ball. It's been a good start to the series but it's only one innings."
Paine, then, is proving to be a departure from history in plenty of ways. Not only as an Australian wicketkeeper captain, but as a Test match gloveman improving his batting when it would usually be on the slide. His next challenge will be to join Marsh, Healy, Gilchrist and Haddin as Test centurions.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig