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Waiting for the real David Warner

He may have hit three fifties in four games, but the Delhi Capitals captain seems a shadow of himself

Alagappan Muthu
Alagappan Muthu
David Warner is fun to watch. And we don't even need to put him on a cricket field for that. At the height of Covid-19, his social media was getting more views than cat videos as he and his family made the best of being stuck home.
On Tuesday against Mumbai Indians, he walked onto the pitch in full hype mode. Short purposeful steps that allowed him to practically lap Prithvi Shaw to the crease. Whirling the hand in his right hand. Then his left. Then holding it horizontally with both hands and hoisting it over his head as he stretched his back out. All part of the routine that gets him ready to do what he does well.
Set up a T20 innings.
About an hour or so into the game, he unleashed a big pull shot and screamed. He arrived at the non-strikers' end and punched that piece of wood in his hands. In the dugout, his team-mates were on their feet applauding. The big screen was showing that he had completed a third fifty in four innings this IPL.
But nothing lifts his mood because he took 43 balls to get there.
Warner was T20 before T20 went mainstream. A batter who saw the game in black and white. There's a little round thing coming down at him. His job was to whack it as hard as possible. Usually, that resulted in him hitting a silly number of boundaries. The count is 820 right now in the IPL. Only one person in the history of the tournament has managed more - Shikhar Dhawan with 873, but he's only there because he's played 46 more innings.
Warner at his peak is minimalist. He isn't 360. And yet even now he is a threat every time he walks out to the middle. That's largely because he is able to hit fours and sixes even while targeting orthodox areas in the field. The only luxury he affords himself are those switch hits.
In 2016, when he led Sunrisers Hyderabad to the IPL title, he scored 63.4% of his 884 runs with shots he could just stand and admire. Right now, although he is the second-highest scorer of the season, only 51.7% of his 220 runs have come in boundaries.
In 2021, after becoming the first player to score 500 runs in six straight IPL seasons, he had the same problem. Only 49.2% of his 195 runs came from hits to the fence.
Other batters do singles and twos. Warner does fours and sixes. The irony is that he is actually trying. Look at his lofted shot percentage through recent IPLs. They're all similar. He's actually trying to hit more out of the park than he did in 2016. The problem is they aren't happening. His strike rate when trying to go over the top in 2023 is 245.9 - the lowest it's been in seven years.
In Delhi, he was faced with a pitch that was slow and did not enable stroke play once the ball got older and the field restrictions were removed. These aren't the best conditions for a batter like Warner, especially in this kind of form, and it became painfully apparent in the 18th over when he missed back-to-back slower balls and one of them knocked the wind out of him.
The exact opposite was happening at the other end. Axar Patel was smoking everything. Dude was responsible for nine out of the 10 boundaries that Delhi Capitals hit while he was at the crease and the secret to his success was very simple.
"When I saw the surface, the ball was stopping and coming," Axar told the broadcasters in the mid-innings interview. "So I had to figure out what shots of mine will come off on a slow pitch. I was trying to hold my shape and going for balls in my hitting area. On this surface, it was important to hold my shape and I was trying just that. I was not trying to hit too hard."
Warner just wasn't able to do that. He was kept quiet early on by a set of bowlers working to a plan - do not give width; do not let him free the arms. Later, when he knew he couldn't bide his time anymore, he was too anxious to make contact; he was too anxious to find the release shot that sets him on his way. It even clouded his thinking. There was a ball in the 13th over where he shaped to flick, then changed his mind to sweep, and finally did nothing with it.
Axar was India's second highest scorer in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. He sometimes bats at No. 5 for them in limited-overs cricket. Capitals might even think of pushing him up there based on his 54 off 25. It is probably no coincidence that this man whose career is on the rise played the innings of the game on a tough pitch whereas the other guy under pressure to be the team's best batter, to be their captain and make up for the loss of Rishabh Pant and to prove that he's still good enough to play in the next Ashes is messing up.
Above all, there's a sense that Warner seems to be wanting it a bit too much. And it keeps backfiring. In the eighth over, he faced a free hit right-handed hoping to make the favourable match up work against the offspin of Hrithik Shokeen. All he got was a miscued single. It feels like he's overthinking, which is blocking him from doing the one thing that makes him a great batter. See ball. Hit ball. The moment he gets back to that, he'll be fine and we'll be spoiled.
Stats inputs from Shiva Jayaraman

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo