JLT Sheffield Shield 2018-19
Pucovski reflects on landmark summer
A Baggy Green did not arrive but for young Will Pucovski, the triumphs and tribulations of 2018-19 have carried a greater significance
It's not only his breaching of 21 – the chronological milestone that historically separated adolescence from adulthood – that has ensured this is an epochal summer for Will Pucovski.
He has learned much since his cricket season formally began for Melbourne at Geelong Cricket Ground on October 6 – about success; about fallibility; about expectation; about himself.
But amid the soaring acclaim and the challenging uncertainties visited upon him during the past four months, Pucovski remains resolutely certain about the period's defining episode.
And that his surprise call-up to, and premature departure from, Australia's men's Test squad last month was hugely beneficial to his development as a cricketer and as a young man.
Despite narrowly missing selection in Australia's final XI for the first Domain Series Test against Sri Lanka at the Gabba, and being granted early leave to return home to Melbourne to manage ongoing mental health issues, Pucovski reflects on that experience as being nothing but positive.
"Absolutely, no doubt about that whatsoever," Pucovski told cricket.com.au just hours after being honoured with the Bradman Young Male Cricketer of the Award title at the Australian Cricket Awards.
"It was two weeks that any young kid would dream of.
"To get called up for your first Test squad is something pretty special, and all young cricketers in Australia dream of representing their country.
"Obviously I didn’t get the opportunity to debut, but that two weeks was an unbelievable experience and something that I'm very glad I had the opportunity to do.
"The group of blokes that are representing Australia at the moment were absolutely incredible in welcoming me into their brotherhood, and making me feel welcome when I was just sort of the young kid that had been plucked out of nowhere.
"That's what it felt like, so it was an incredible experience and I felt like I was getting better every day, which is what you try and do."
While Pucovski's self-effacing assessment that he was "plucked out of nowhere" might resonate with casual cricket observers, the award he received in Melbourne last Monday night only highlighted the pedigree he is known to possess.
The Bradman Young Cricketer title is bestowed upon players beginning their journey in senior cricket (aged 24 or under, with not more than 10 first-class and 25 List-A appearances) based on votes cast by peers in rival teams.
Which means that over the course of just eight first-class matches (including six Sheffield Shield games) and four List-A appearances (such as Cricket Australia XI and JLT One-Day Cup fixtures) Pucovski has been recognised beyond Victoria as the nation's brightest young male talent.
For context, Brett Lee had been in the Shield system for three seasons and had two Tests under his belt when he was named the inaugural winner in 2000, while David Warner's win in 2012 came three years after he blazed on to the international scene in the T20 and ODI formats.
A batting prodigy at national under-19s level, Pucovski's arrival as a similarly dominant figure came last October when placed himself in company with Doug Walters and Don Bradman as the only players to have scored a Sheffield Shield double-century before turning 21.
Yet that innings of 243 against Western Australia in Perth also brought to light the reality that Pucovski battled far greater challenges than those posed by opposition seamers and spinners.
In the week that followed, the 20-year-old advised he would take an indefinite break from cricket while he sought to better understand and manage the issues confronting him.
The support provided by his family, his coterie of close friends, and by medical professionals working in consultation with Cricket Australia and Cricket Victoria is as comprehensive as the debilitating impacts of anxiety are complex.
By dint of its uniqueness among professional sport – essentially an individual pursuit framed within a team structure, with an elongated time structure that means players' stints on the road can stretch for months – cricket is often characterised as an intensely mental game.
Through brave insights shared by players such as Test-capped all-rounder and Sydney Sixers captain Moises Henriques, who was also honoured at Monday night's event with the inaugural Community Champion Award, a more detailed understanding continues to build.
And while Pucovski is learning with each new experience, he understands he is pursuing an atypical career path that brings with it heightened exposure to public curiosity and external pressure.
After all, while it's hardly unusual for a 20-year-old to head to Queensland's Noosa Heads for a post-Christmas sun sabbatical, not many answer their phones when at the beach to find they've been named in the Australia squad for an upcoming Test match.
"I don't reckon I knew three-quarters of the squad," Pucovski recalled of his introduction to the national men's team in Brisbane in January.
"I had a few WhatsApp messages from a few of the guys, (it) was quite bizarre … walking into the hotel for the first time and introducing myself.
"But I had a few Victorians there as well, who I've obviously known through playing state cricket so that helped me settle in.
Given the excitement that accompanied his initial selection, the sense of anti-climax expressed by some when fellow batter Kurtis Patterson swept past him into the Test team, and then his early return home from Canberra, theories emerged that those disparate occurrences were all inter-linked.
Pucovski does not subscribe to that view.
Indeed, looking back on the hectic few days preceding the Brisbane Test during which speculation abounded he was about to earn a Baggy Green Cap, Pucovski feels that others then took news of his exclusion far tougher than did he.
And he dismisses suggestions that subsequent events in Canberra stemmed directly from that selection decision.
"I don’t think it (the challenges he faced in Canberra) was anything to do with that," he said of the effect of being overlooked for Australia's starting XI in Brisbane.
"A lot of people messaged me afterwards (in Brisbane), as if I'd be really shattered.
"To a degree, I was sitting there like 'I'm 20 years old, I'm in the Test squad – there's a lot worse situations to be in'.
"Obviously it would have been amazing to play, but I was kind of just relieved to find out either way, to be honest.
"It was just one of those things that I knew, whether I played or not, it was going to be an experience that you treasure forever.
"So it probably wasn't as big a deal as what was made of it.
"Coming home early (during the second Test in Canberra) was more a personal thing, but I'm really excited to play the remainder of the Shield season with Victoria.
"I've made huge strides in that department, in life, over the last few months."
The experiences he pocketed and the memories he forged during his time with the Test squad also remain deeply etched within him.
Asked what he felt was the pre-eminent learning from his first interaction with the elite group, under the leadership of coach Justin Langer and captain Tim Paine, Pucovski said: "I think it was that excitement that you get, even putting on your gear to go to training."
"You know that you're training to potentially represent your country in that scenario, (and) at my first training session, I remember sitting there in bed before it started going 'oh wow, this is quite different to what you're used to'.
"As a cricket fanatic growing up, you just never thought it would really become a reality as much as you wanted it to.
"I was 20, and I'm just sitting there going 'these are the people that I'm training with today, and this is the squad that I'm part of'.
"It was quite surreal."
Pucovski returns to cricket this weekend, for Melbourne against Camberwell Magpies in Victoria's Premier Cricket competition.
Although his involvement in that game is likely to be restricted to the first day's play only, with his availability for Victoria's next Sheffield Shield match (against Queensland, starting the following Saturday) rendering him unavailable for the final day of the club fixture.
As a consequence, Pucovski is hoping that Melbourne bat first against Camberwell and he's able to enjoy a stay at the crease before his return to Shield cricket for the first time since his epic innings in Perth.
But that's about as far ahead as the now 21-year-old likes to look.
"I've never been a huge goal-setter in terms of 'I have to make this squad by this age' or 'I have to do this by this period of time'," Pucovski said.
"In the last few years, I've had a few injuries (mainly concussions) that have set me back and what's happened this season it’s made me realise that what I get to do is pretty incredible, and a lot of people would be pretty privileged to be in my position.
"So I'm just trying to appreciate what I'm going through as much as I can, and enjoying the ride.
"Whatever comes along the way, whether that be a Baggy Green which is obviously an aspiration for the future, then that would be amazing.
"But if not, then I'll just try my best for Victoria and keep trying to pile on as many runs and win as many games as I can for Victoria."
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