Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
David Warner is an Australia cricketer again. Four hundred and thirty-three days later, never mind that he brought along with him a couple dressed as sandpaper, and loud boos most places he has gone, Warner is an Australia cricketer again. That much no one can take away. Once he is done ignoring the boos, once he is done deflecting every last bit of attention off himself and onto the team, he must feel great relief that he is back playing for Australia.
Warner's is quite different to the cases of Steven Smith and Cameron Bancroft, who have drawn their share of sympathy following tear-filled admissions of guilt. The cricketing world has been less forgiving on Warner, about whom the worst has been assumed. He is the perpetrator, the corruptor, the sledger who infamously said he needed to hate the opposition to be at his best. He has not made a public show of contrition, he has not had sponsors welcoming him back, he has done his time in silence. He needed this reassurance the most.
It could have been tempting and easy for Warner to look away. To India, where he was loved the moment he landed for this IPL. It can do weird things to you: to be loved in a country whose team you hated while your own country judges you. He could have looked to T20 leagues, where he will be the first pick the moment he goes freelance. To something other than cricket even because anything might have been better than being hounded like criminals.
Warner decided he wanted his Australia career more than anything else, and he has stayed determined to reclaim it. To do so he knew he would have had to earn back the respect not just of the outsiders but of the Australian team and coaching staff. Two days before the match, he was told he had to prove his fitness and prove it with time to spare so that the process is fair on Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja, one of whom would have to make way for him. There was no way Warner was not going to make it, though, and he did everything two days before the match to show the leadership he was fit. He was hungry.
There possibly could not have been a better scenario to come back to. Bristol is a quiet town that, going by the evidence of the last three days, has its priority. It was busier protesting against climate change than trying to spite an Ashes rival. While they are no pushovers, Afghanistan are not quite England or South Africa or India, matches against whom will draw the most negative attention for Warner and Smith.
And then Afghanistan decided to bat first, and the Australia bowlers kept them down to 207. While he fielded, Warner dealt with a mixed reaction. There were a few boos but when he went down to the long-on boundary towards the end of the innings, there were quite a few people asking him for autographs, whom he did oblige. He walked out to bat to boos, and while elite athletes love being loved this was nothing he wouldn't have expected and wouldn't be prepared for.
This was the kind of target where Warner could ease his way into his innings. His captain, Aaron Finch, made it even easier for Warner. Not long ago, in the IPL, Warner had scored more runs than anyone else despite playing only half the tournament. To those who watched him at the IPL, scoring at ease, taking in all the love, this innings might even feel mundane. Not to Warner.
"The way that I started out there - playing Twenty20 cricket over the last sort of 12 to 14 months - I hadn't really moved my feet at all," Warner admitted in the post-match presentation. "So to get back into rhythm out there, start moving in the right direction, getting my head over the ball - that was just great to get out there and do that. As a positive, for us, it's about getting past this first victory and move on to the West Indies."
Finch could see it. "I think he was struggling for the first half of his innings there," Finch said. "He struggled to time the ball and his feet weren't really going, so the fact that he kept hanging in there and hanging in there… you always have to remember that it's going to be harder for a new batter to come in. So that was great for him, to just keep on and do that job really well for us and be not out at the end."
It is easy to read too much into how determined Warner was, and imagine some of the steel, but there was restraint to this innings that you don't normally see with Warner. Consequently Hamid Hassan bowled two maidens at him, the first time anybody has done so in an ODI innings. He scored his slowest ODI half-century. He hit only eight fours and no sixes in 114 balls.
This innings, the uncertainness of it, the deliberateness of it, is almost like a reminder that the path to earning back respect is going to be a painstaking one. In bigger matches there will be more vitriol thrown his way, there will be less time to play himself in.
Warner is arguably the most fascinating cricketer going around today. It is not unlikely that in order to get the best out of himself, to win for Australia, Warner tried every last trick in the book: whether it be making himself hate the opposition for that extra edge or tampering with the ball. The time away must have brought him perspective, but now that he has chosen to be that elite athlete again, he almost has to prove his own methods wrong and still be successful and win games for Australia. Bristol is just the start of it, an easy start compared to what awaits him.