How England stint rekindled passion for Paine
The Australia captain is hoping to build on his experience with a small local team in 2015 when he leads his country to battle against England later this year
17 June 2019, 06:48 PM AEST
On the day that Australia formally surrendered the Ashes in 2015, having capitulated to England inside barely 13 hours of Test cricket, Tim Paine was one of the few batters in Britain showing any semblance of form.
Unfortunately for the besieged tourists, the unbeaten 152 from 154 balls that Paine scorched that Saturday came at Banbury Cricket Club's rustic ground set on reclaimed farmland at Bodicote in Oxfordshire (population 2,100) and not before a euphoric English crowd in full voice at Nottingham's Trent Bridge (capacity 17,500).
Given that, at that point of his career, it had been almost five years since he last pulled on a Baggy Green Cap and he held no certainty of selection in Tasmania's Sheffield Shield team, there was no chance of Paine being urgently drafted into Michael Clarke's under-performing Ashes squad.
But his stint as opening bat and wicketkeeper at Banbury did serve a purpose that might yet prove decisive when the urn is up for grabs later this year.
As Australia's 46th Test captain, Paine becomes the first since William 'Billy' Murdoch (who led the inaugural 'official' men's team to England in 1880) to skipper an Ashes quest in Britain without having previously played a Test against the old enemy on their home turf.
It's a slice of history Paine would never have earned if not for the spiritual nourishment and competitive reaffirmation he discovered at Banbury Cricket Club
Such was the grassroots connection and the irrepressible community spirit he found in England's Home Counties League, Paine felt his love rekindle for the game that had won his heart as a boy but from which he had become increasingly estranged.
"I think the time I spent playing league cricket was a bit of a turning point for me," Paine told cricket.com.au as he prepared for the upcoming Qantas Ashes tour.
"I wasn't really enjoying playing cricket domestically at that stage, probably because I wasn't going so well.
"But to get away, and to play in England with the club that I did, and to see how English people just love their cricket so much, I found that really infectious."
Paine and his then girlfriend (now wife) Bonnie were overwhelmed by the warm embrace in which Banbury, on the north-east fringe of the Cotswolds, wrapped them.
The couple boarded with club chairman Martin Phillips and his family, and were loaned a car – which Paine dubbed 'the pimp mobile' – by another clubmate.
In return, and in addition to the 836 runs (with four centuries) and 27 dismissals that earned him First XI Player of the Year honours that summer, Paine immersed himself in the life of his new cricket home.
He invested much of his spare time working with Banbury's under-age and women's teams and ran specialist training classes for budding wicketkeepers of all ages after the senior team had completed training on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
Any further gaps in his schedule not spent exploring the surrounding Midlands with Bonnie were dedicated to his tutelage of aspiring cricketers at Oxford University's fabled Magdalen College, which counts King Edward VIII, Oscar Wilde and Howard Florey among its alumni.
Not only did the experience rekindle Paine's passion for cricket and a desire to keep playing at the highest possible level, it awakened him to the essential role that sporting clubs play in communities' delicate ecosystems.
Especially in the UK, where cricket clubs are more of a social setting than a sporting coterie, and act as a hub for young families, for former players, and for folk whose commitment to the game is most readily expressed in their grassroots support.
It was an awareness and a spirit that Paine then took with him when he returned to Australia, two matches before the 2015 league season's end to begin his preparatory training with Tasmania bearing renewed purpose and optimism.
The then 30-year-old arrived back in Hobart with an altered vision of how cricket should be, both at his Premier Club (University) and in his own mind.
"I was amazed by the amount of people that would go down to the (Banbury) club on a Tuesday or a Thursday evening, and not just a Saturday, and that's something that's probably died out of Australian cricket a little bit," Paine said.
"That was a great thing to see at that club level of cricket, and to see how much cricket meant to people plus the work that people put into clubs like Banbury.
"I've certainly taken some ideas back to Uni, things that we can try and emulate – the way they do their club system and community support is fantastic.
"I loved the environment around the clubs that they have over there, so I just really enjoyed my time and started to enjoy playing cricket again.
"Since I came home from that trip, I viewed cricket slightly differently.
"I haven't been as serious, or as hard on myself.
"I'm certainly still very driven and try and improve all the time, but it helped me to change my outlook and to enjoy cricket again."
What he could never have foreseen, even with that new-found clarity, was that the catalogue of injuries and collapse of form that had brought him to the brink of divorce from his planned career would turn in circumstances still scarcely believable.
The trials that Paine had faced and the toll they extracted began with his badly broken right index finger in 2010, just months after his Test debut – coincidentally in England, although against Pakistan – and a series of subsequent injuries to the already damaged digit.
By the time the 2015 Ashes squad was named, with incumbent keeper Brad Haddin in the autumn of his tenure and with Peter Nevill and Matthew Wade seemingly vying for the gloves, Paine's dream of playing in an Ashes series seemed over.
It was an ambition he had nurtured since boyhood, and he clearly recalls the excitement that accompanied the start of Test matches in England as they were beamed back to his family's lounge room in the numbing chill of a Hobart winter.
"I remember being a kid, and being up at seven or eight o'clock at night to watch the first ball of the Ashes in England and thinking to myself 'gee, that would be amazing'," Paine said.
"Now I pinch myself a bit thinking that, in the next few months, I'm going to be on tele, playing over there in front of full houses of fans that don't like us.
"I just can't wait."
A clear difference between Paine's childhood experiences and those of his adult cricket career is that the teams he watched from a hemisphere away in 1989 and throughout the 1990s were relentlessly successful.
Since 2005, the year that Paine made his first-class and one-day debuts for Tasmania, Australia has won just four of 20 Test matches against their historic foe in the UK, and left each of those four tours without the Ashes.
Despite his hectic schedule at Banbury, Paine admits he tuned into sizeable chunks of the 2015 series as he prepared for evening training and coaching sessions and has some insights into why Australia have struggled so badly in Britain over the past decade and more.
He notes that England's Test record in Australia over the same period is even poorer – three wins from their past 20 Tests, albeit with a series victory in 2010-11 – and that batting for lengthy periods is the skill that his team must master if recent history is to be reversed.
Across those past 20 Ashes Tests in the UK since Australia's most recent series triumph in 2001, the visitors have managed to bat beyond 100 overs in their first innings just seven times – for a record of three wins and four draws.
Occupying the crease and keeping England in the field will carry added importance for Paine's batting group given the home team's bowling will once again be led by veteran new-ball pair James Anderson (who turns 37 days before the first Test) and Stuart Broad (33 in June).
"They've obviously had a fantastic opening bowling partnership for a long time but they are getting older, so maybe that's an opportunity for us," Paine said of England's recent home dominance.
"Certainly, Broad and Anderson have played a huge role in most Ashes series that England have won over there.
"So we've got to find a way to nullify them and to score runs against them and to make them bowl lots of overs because the older they get, the harder it becomes for guys like that to back-up.
"It's going to be huge emphasis on our batting group to bat long periods of time."
Paine completed his pre-departure training at the Bupa National Cricket Centre in Brisbane before he leads the Australia A men's four-day squad to the UK for warm-up matches against Sussex (July 7-10), England Lions (July 13-16) and a second Australia team (July 23-26).
He confirmed his plan is to play in all three of those games given the paucity of top-level red-ball cricket he's played in English conditions.
He also echoed earlier statements from men's team coach Justin Langer that the final make-up of Australia's Ashes touring party might not be known until a week or so prior to the first Test, scheduled to start at Edgbaston on August 1.
"When you're picking teams, you know the core of your squad and then tend to spend a bit of time piecing together the last bits of it," he said.
"So there's certainly some opportunities for people to nail spots in England, and if that takes right up until the last warm-up game of the tour (between Australia and Australia A) then so be it."
The 34-year-old father of two (daughter Milla almost two, and son Charlie, nine months) cites Australia's 2017-18 Ashes victory after he was recalled to Test cricket from a seven-year absence as the unrivalled highlight of his on-field cricket life to date.
But he believes that, in light of events that delivered him the captaincy in South Africa last year and the journey to redemption his team has been undertaking ever since, retaining the urn in England over the coming months would set a new personal benchmark.
"I look at where this team has come from," Paine said.
"This group, which at times people have described as not being a good team – which, to be fair, was warranted at times – and the challenge that comes from being able to take the group from that point and then to win the Ashes in England, that would be a huge achievement for all of us.
"There's been a lot of very good Australian teams that haven't been able to do that over the past decade or more, so that's the stuff that dreams are made of."
But while the Ashes win in Australia remains Paine's proudest cricket achievement, he also acknowledges the scrutiny and the pressure that accompanied that five-match campaign was the most demanding he has endured.
He therefore anticipates the upcoming tour will provide an even sterner challenge to his mental and physical resilience now that he carries the additional responsibility of captaincy.
Paine claims that, whereas in his pre-captaincy Test days he could afford to relax at innings end and effectively put his feet up for hours until his turn to bat loomed, he now regularly finds himself "playing the game for everyone".
As a result, he and Langer have been carefully plotting a workload management regime to ensure Paine is able to 'switch off' during the few gaps between Tests, and thereby keep himself fresh for the duration of the 10-week campaign.
Langer knows how claustrophobic the environment can become on an Ashes tour when the team's not performing and the hyper-jingoistic English crowds and commentators are piling on the patriotism.
As a member of Ricky Ponting's 2005 touring party that became the first to surrender the Ashes on British turf in two decades, Langer reveals he could not get back to Australia quickly enough when the outcome was finalised.
"There's so much tradition and so much emotion involved with an Ashes series," he told cricket.com.au.
"I remember in 2005, just getting into the plane to fly home was such a huge relief because it had been so relentless.
"They are tough series, Ashes contests, and England are a very good cricket team and they know their conditions well.
"The English press, the Barmy Army and the way they're always barracking hard for their team through thick and thin, they are extra challenges that we don't always face.
"I know Painey hasn't experienced that before, but he'll have good mentors around him, and good people in the group to help him with all of that.
"It's going to be a great challenge for him, but that's why he's the Australian cricket captain.
"I reckon he'll lap it up."
Paine concedes that while he feels in better physical shape than he did on the cusp of his rise to international cricket a decade ago, he was suffering from mental fatigue at the end of his first full summer as Test skipper in Australia.
He had previously reassured Langer and other senior Cricket Australia figures he did not believe he would require a rest during the home season, but then felt himself waning towards summer's end.
"I didn't realise it was happening until it completely hit me, and I was mentally cooked," he said, having taken a break from Tasmania's Sheffield Shield team late in the season and then enjoyed a family holiday in Bali last month.
"It wasn't anything drastic, just a week off and I was fine.
"But I've got to find ways to get away, and not think about cricket."
The presence of Bonnie and the couple's children at some stage of the Ashes tour will help ensure he does not become too cricket-centric, but he is working with Langer and team psychologist Michael Lloyd to put other strategies in place.
Paine has not yet developed an appetite for golf, so when he feels the need – or is instructed – to get away from the cricket environment, he's more likely to be found in a coffee shop or simply taking in the sights of whichever city he finds himself in.
He's also vowed to listen to the wisdom of others in the touring party when they notice he's preparing to take part in an optional training session he had previously indicated he'd skip, or is immersed in cricket activities during what's supposed to be 'down time'.
"It is exhausting, and a lot of that mental energy is spent when you're away from cricket," Paine said.
"As I discovered in 2017-18, going into an Ashes summer it's ten-times more intense and I imagine that playing in England is probably up a level again in that regard.
"They have so much more media, and they're always out to get you in England so it will be a tough tour, and people have got to be able to find a way to switch off.
"Some people don’t like to switch off, but I need to and for me to do it I need to actually get away from things."
Maybe a day or two in the bosom of Banbury, away from the spotlight and the suffocation of the Ashes caravan, might once more provide an essential recuperative balm.
Qantas Ashes Tour of the UK 2019
Tour match: Australia v Australia A, Hampshire, July 23-26
First Test: August 1-5 at Edgbaston, Birmingham
Tour match: Australia v Worcestershire, August 7-9
Second Test: August 14-18 at Lord's, London
Third Test: August 22-26 at Headingley, Leeds
Tour match: Australia v Derbyshire, August 29-31
Fourth Test: September 4-8 at Old Trafford, Manchester
Fifth Test: September 12-16 at The Oval, London