Warner channels Warne as captaincy blossoms

05 September 2016
Our voices

David Warner discusses his mindset as captain after leading Australia to a 4-1 ODI Series win

About the Writer:

Andrew Ramsey is the senior writer for He previously wrote for the Guardian, The Australian, The Times, The Telegraph, The Hindu and Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the author of The Wrong Line.

As much as David Warner might rate those whippy leg breaks he has occasionally bowled at international level and which he believes have earned him hundreds of wickets in the practice nets, he would never compare himself to Shane Warne.

But there has been sufficient evidence tendered during Warner’s undefeated three-match tenure as Australia’s ODI captain while Steve Smith enjoys a refresh that he might just be the most natural Australian captain not to get the job full-time since the great legspinner.

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Warne’s captaincy strike rate of more than 90 per cent remains unequalled among the 141 international captains who have led their countries in 10 or more ODIs.

A large majority of those 10 wins from 11 starts came during the 1998-98 ODI tri-series against England and Sri Lanka in Australia when the appointed limited-overs skipper, Steve Waugh, was sidelined with a hamstring injury.

And both he and Warne were engaged in a spirited battle for the hearts of minds of Australian cricket fans given the prized office of Test captain had only recently been vacated by Mark Taylor.

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Ultimately, Waugh won that battle for reasons including the then Australian Cricket Board’s (now Cricket Australia) reticence to hand such an esteemed role to an employee with such a colourful off-field history.

The more palatable option of Adam Gilchrist was installed as Waugh’s deputy, and while Gilchrist went on to lead Australia in six Tests and 17 ODIs, Warne’s run as captain ended with a thumping win over the old enemy England to secure that summer’s series at the MCG in February 1999.

Among the reasons cited by those who played under Warne for his success as a captain – at state, county and T20 franchise level – was that in addition to his instinctive feel for the game and preparedness to back his hunches like the poker player he was to become, he was a genuinely inspirational leader.

He would whip his players into a lather of enthusiasm with the sort of pre-game pep talks for which football coaches become famous.

And it was widely accepted that if not for the other elements of the package that he presented, he would have enjoyed a highly successful captaincy tenure at the helm of one of the great Australian teams of all time.

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While Warner’s own catalogue of off-field indiscretions is more voluminous than many, it is scarcely the Warne Chronicles.

But the monolithic obstacle facing the 29-year-old, who has been the subject of public counselling by CA and whose appointment as Test vice-captain a year ago was met with surprise among more than a few, is the bloke who was elevated to Michael Clarke’s job ahead of him.

Not only does Steve Smith carry the title in all three formats of the international game – Tests, ODIs and T20 – but he is a couple of years younger than his deputy and is therefore expected to be in the role for the remainder of both players’ respective careers for Australia.

But should fate in the unwanted form of a long-term injury or a drastic loss of form mean Warner has to grasp the reins for a prolonged gallop, the nation’s public and the game’s bureaucracy have seen enough to be reassured that he’s up to the challenge.

Of course, a few ODIs towards the end of a long and unrewarding tour when the incumbent is sent home for a rest makes a captain not.

However, as one of the reasons tendered for withdrawing Smith to allow him a mental and physical reprieve before a hectic six-month schedule was to grant Warner some experience that would hold him in captaincy stead should the need arise down the track, the selectors must have been pleased with what they have witnessed.

Apart from his ability to win a coin toss, where his record of 0-3 was even worse than Smith who lost all three in the Tests but boasted a 50 per cent strike rate in the first two ODIs.

In the field, Warner scuttles around like a Jack Russell terrier, throwing himself at the ball, chasing after bowlers at the end of an over, rounding up his teammates to ensure they’re stationed where they’re supposed to be.

Or where the bowler wants them employed, because in the management jargon of the time Warner has chosen to ‘empower’ his bowlers to tell him what fields they want set, which means they in turn carry the onus to ensure they bowl appropriately to them.

In Sunday's opening hour, they didn’t meet their KPIs and Warner showed at game’s end he’s not shy about delivering some honest workplace feedback, albeit accompanied by some positive reinforcement.

"I felt like we were playing grade cricket to be honest, the bowlers," Warner said in the wake of Australia’s five-wicket win at Pallekele that carried them to a comprehensive 4-1 series triumph.

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"They didn’t switch on in the first 10 (overs), they probably lacked a little bit of energy and intent, and they know that.

"But we still restricted them (Sri Lanka) to 195 and that’s a fantastic effort on these wickets.

"They’ve done everything that I’ve asked.

"I’ve given them the responsibility of changing their field and bowling to the fields that they want, and they’ve reacted to that."

And like Warne, Warner has an instinctive feel for those pivotal moments and a dislike for allowing the game to drift when there are wickets to be had and hunches to be followed.

Time and again at Pallekele, having once again returned to the dressing room to tell his weary bowlers they were heading out into the afternoon heat because he’d nominated the wrong side of the coin, Warner swung changes that yielded immediate results.

Deprived of their traditional first-over breakthrough from Mitchell Starc, Warner deployed his strike bowler in short and typically sharp spells which ultimately smacked of genius.

When Starc’s second delivery of his second spell netted him the wicket of Sri Lanka’s captain Dinesh Chandimal, the script for the remainder of an innings that had started with such promise for the home team was effectively writ.

Warner’s decision to replace Starc after a two-over stint with John Hastings saw the Victorian get rid of the potentially dangerous Kusal Mendis, and the captain then pulled his next trick.

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With a pair of left-handers (Dhananjaya de Silva and Danushka Gunithalaka) at the wicket, he decided that legspinner Adam Zampa turning the ball into them was a less threatening option than part-time off-spinner Travis Head spinning it away.

It took Head 11 deliveries to claim Gunithalaka in the very manner that Warner had envisaged – with a catcher stationed at backward point (Zampa) who accepted the sliced edge from a miscued drive.

He subsequently admitted that while some of that planning comes in team meetings where strategies for individual opponents are workshopped and fine-tuned, much of it comes down to taking a punt based on the skipper’s gut feeling.

"Generally with the left-handers (batting) we tend to go with Starcy a little bit, with the breeze as well and (getting the ball) to tail in," Warner said of his decision to throw the ball to Head, playing just his sixth ODI for Australia.

"But I find that a couple of their players like to come after the ball a little bit, and with the ball turning away you’re always in the game especially with the one going on (with the arm).

"And I felt that Trav (Head) bowled well last game and I thought I might as well bring him on and see if I could jag a wicket.

"And fortunately enough again, it happened.

"I’ve seen captains use it in the past.

"If a left-hander is facing they might throw the offie on to try and put two dot balls and try and bring that big shot, and I felt with them losing a couple of wickets it would be quite risky for them to either sweep or take the game on.

"So that’s probably the reason why I did it."

That final line being one that Warne was known to trot out in the face of myriad scenarios.

But that breakthrough convinced Warner it was time to re-deploy Starc to scythe through the Sri Lankans middle-order and, even though the match was almost 30 overs old and the pitch was dry and slow, put a slip fielder in place because he sensed an edge was coming.

Which it did, four balls into Starc’s new spell, although that level of anticipation was not shared by Aaron Finch who was stationed next to the ‘keeper and could only get his right index finger to the chance that flew like a bullet past his ankle.

Undaunted, Warner stuck to the plan and the breakthrough duly came, though not to the bowler thought most likely.

Rather it was Head who had been kept on despite breaking the left-handers’ union, although his second wicket (Kusal Perera) was more an umpiring curiosity than a triumph of strategy.

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When he did give the off-spinner a break from the crease in favour of Zampa, the legspinner came up trumps in his first over back.

Heading out to bat with 196 in his sights, Warner carried an even greater burden having lost his opening partner Finch – who had been the most productive and assured of Australia’s first pair in this series – to the earlier finger injury.

His start could hardly have been less authoritative – an inside edge to fine leg from the opening ball of the run chase that Suranga Lakmal got to skid through off the surface and jag a little off the seam.

But an over later, with the scourge of spin manifesting immediately in the form of off-break nemesis Dilruwan Perera, Warner launched into one of the reverse sweeps that he’s been assiduously rehearsing in the nets and the resultant boundary steeled his resolve.

And settled his uncertainty.

Like Warne so many times, Warner then rose to and above the challenge of his team in peril after the nervy loss of his new opening partner Matthew Wade and number three Usman Khawaja in quick succession.

Warner’s century was the first by an Australia batsman in an ODI on Sri Lankan soil, his first of what’s been a humbling tour that has belatedly yielded success, and one that he concedes could have ended much earlier had he been adjudged out caught from a sweep shot that deflected to leg slip.

But was deemed not out on the field, and was not referred to the third umpire by the Sri Lankan fielders.

"For me it was a bit of a sigh of relief," Warner said at the close of the game and the end of the series.

"I never doubt myself and I kept backing my plans and you do need a bit of luck in this game."

Cricket also requires immaculate timing, and in serving his initial captaincy apprenticeship amid trying circumstances on a difficult tour Warner has shown that his remains as crisp in leadership as it invariably is against a new ball.

Meg Lanning Steve Smith