Ponting's technical tips fuel Carey's burning ambition
Impressive evolution both behind and in front of the stumps continues for Australia's ODI keeper, who might one day take the gloves for the national side in all three formats
3 June 2021, 05:08 PM AEST
As he returns to top-level training next week, Alex Carey will be driven by the technical advice he received from Australia Test great Ricky Ponting and a burning ambition for the summer ahead.
Carey will join his South Australia teammates running 2km time trials in the Adelaide parklands as an introduction to their pre-season regimen before he flies to Brisbane later this month to work at the Bupa National Cricket Centre ahead of the men's limited-overs team tour to the West Indies.
After six months spent bouncing between bio-security bubbles – from Australia's white-ball tour of the UK last September, direct to the Indian Premier League in the UAE, to a home international campaign against India, to the KFC BBL and then the final phase of the domestic summer – he has revelled in recent weeks spent at home with his family in Adelaide.
But he's now eager to "get back on the tools" and a chance to revisit the batting tips provided by Ponting during their brief stint as coach and student with the Delhi Capitals during last year's IPL campaign.
The 29-year-old's other motivation to slip on the keeping gloves and strap on the pads is to help SA bounce back from a winless 2020-21 summer, with a strong belief that his first priority will beget the second.
Ponting recently revealed he worked closely with Carey to make changes to his batting technique during last year's IPL where the left-hander played just three games for Delhi who ultimately reached the 2020 tournament final.
"I think he's playing better than ever … in all three formats of the game," Ponting told cricket.com.au, noting Carey "looked brilliant" in his two innings as captain of Australia A in the tour game against India that preceded last summer's Vodafone Test series.
"There's no question about his keeping ability, there's no question about his personality or character.
"The next step for him is to become an ultra-consistent run scorer in Shield cricket, and that will ensure he's ready to score consistent runs at Test level as well, if he gets the opportunity."
Statistics support Ponting's assessment, with Carey finishing the Marsh Sheffield Shield season averaging almost 60 (299 runs at 59.80 from his three appearances for SA).
He was also one of only four Australia players (alongside Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith and Aaron Finch) to average 30-plus in ODIs over the past year, and was Adelaide Strikers second-highest runs scorer in BBL|10 behind Jake Weatherald.
But the changes Ponting recommended – getting his hands "higher" at the point of bowler's release to better access scoring options on the leg side – haven't yet become instinctive, so Carey will return to the nets in coming weeks with the ex-Test skipper's words still echoing.
"It's hard when you only have a few weeks together to try and implement those changes in your game, and then you go straight back into competition," Carey told cricket.com.au this week.
"When 'Punter' (Ponting) and I were working together in Dubai, there was a focus on trying to improve my legside power hitting and we found a way to try and do that.
"But when you're out in the middle during a match and the adrenaline is going, you're not really thinking about the work you've done in the nets.
"Your instincts take over and you can go back to your old habits, so it's going to be a thing that I work on whenever I can in the nets and have time to focus more on the technical side.
"It'll just be something that evolves, and I'll continue to work on for years to come."
Carey's at his most comfortable when analysing areas of self-improvement and drilling down to process.
He hesitates, however, when talk turns to his aspirations to be an all-formats player for Australia and visibly baulks at any suggestion he's favoured to assume the Test keeping role from current skipper Tim Paine despite recent strong endorsement from selection chair Trevor Hohns.
When Carey was named alongside Paine in Australia's 19-man squad for this year's planned Test tour to South Africa (subsequently postponed due to COVID-19 security concerns), Hohns noted Carey's selection ahead of rival back-up keeping option Matthew Wade showed "our thinking is reasonably clear there without actually rubber-stamping it".
"It probably showed I was doing something right in terms of my game, and that dream of mine to play Test cricket might still become a reality," Carey said of his selection for the tour that never happened.
"But there's still a lot of work for me to do between now and whenever that might potentially happen, if it ever does.
"And Tim (Paine) is certainly doing a great job with the Test team coming into what will be a huge summer."
Carey also knows from brutal experience – he was culled from football (with Greater Western Sydney Giants) and cricket (SA Redbacks) contract lists in the past decade, and deposed as joint vice-captain of Australia's limited-overs team barely two years ago – there are no certainties in professional sport.
He also lost his place in Australia's T20 set-up to Wade in the UK last year, after keeping in 30 of the 32 matches they played since he made his international debut in the 20-over format against New Zealand at the SCG in February, 2018.
It's for that reason he also demurs from assuming he'll be on the charter flight to the Caribbean later this month for the five-match T20I and three ODIs campaign against the West Indies starting July 10, with fellow glovemen Wade and Josh Philippe also in the preliminary 23-man squad.
Rather, he holds a measured view of his place in the pecking order of aspiring Australia keeper-batters (which also features Western Australia's Josh Inglis and Queensland's Jimmy Peirson) and understands that working hard and performing for SA are outcomes he can more readily influence.
He is reassured, however, by the capacity he's shown in recent years to move between formats at short notice without suffering any demonstrable dip in his batting output or keeping skills.
Since the 2019 ICC World Cup where he announced himself on the international stage and earned selection in the team of the tournament, Carey has been Australia's fourth-highest runs scorer in the 50-over format behind Finch, Smith and David Warner.
During that period, he has also been the Strikers' second-most prolific batter in the BBL (after Weatherald) and is the only SA player to average more than 50 in first-class matches in Australia since the start of the 2018-19 with four hundreds and three half-centuries from 20 innings.
"When you're going from one format to another, as has been the case over the past few years, you just have to trust you've got the right tools to perform in whatever situation you find yourself," Carey said.
"I think that's something I've done reasonably well, to be able to go from T20 cricket, back into Shield cricket and then one-day cricket and perform quite well with the bat, and I think the consistency of my first-class numbers over the last three years has probably shown that.
"Then, if you throw some decent Big Bashes in there and some one-day cricket for Australia as well, I think I've probably got a bit more consistent with performances over that time which is what you expect when you mature a bit and get your technique somewhere you want it to be.
"I feel like I'm on the right path, albeit I haven't nailed my game yet with where I want it to get to.
"So I can't look too much further ahead than preparing for this West Indies tour, and hopefully making the squad to go there.
"If I do, it's an opportunity to try and get back in the T20 team and I look to take that with both hands if the chance comes long.
"If not, then I'll train hard while I'm away and hopefully get a go in the one-day team and hold on to my spot there.
"As far as other aspirations for the summer, it's just hopefully showing consistent form and making small improvements to develop and keep developing my leadership around the SACA to help us win games of cricket.
"If anything, that's probably my biggest goal – to win more games with SA this summer, hopefully with the help of my performances.
"I'm excited to have Brendan Doggett (from Queensland) and the other recruits who have been added to our list, and catching up with them and the guys when we get stuck into pre-season from next Monday.
"There's a lot to look forward to across all formats and for all teams that I'm hopefully a part of next summer, but none more so than at the SACA to see what we can do."