Vodafone Test Series v India
Pucovski's 'awesome' day caps a long, luckless journey
Will Pucovski, at just 22, has a well documented history with concussion, making his journey to Baggy Green cap No.460 and a Test fifty in his maiden knock, all the more remarkable
7 January 2021, 10:18 PM AEST
Given the fraught and occasionally fragile path he's trodden to get there, Will Pucovski was never going to make a regulation arrival to Test cricket.
From a clandestine conversation about his impending debut that he was told must be kept secret, to a gamut of emotions stretching from anxiety to euphoria to wonderment and disbelief, Pucovski crammed more into 150 minutes of Test match batting than some manage in a career.
The subterfuge element stemmed from a visit he made to the hotel room of Test captain Tim Paine, who has become both mate and mentor to the young Victorian, on Tuesday evening and where Paine buckled under the weight of queries to reveal the lad was in the starting XI for Thursday.
Paine then swore his new teammate to secrecy, and Pucovski duly reacted with suitable surprise and delight when coach and national selector Justin Langer 'broke' the happy news to the rookie opener the next day.
Having previously admitted he'd never been more nervous than the night preceding his Sheffield Shield debut as an 18-year-old in 2017, it was perhaps that extra day's notice that enabled Pucovski to get to the SCG on match morning with a few hours' kip under his belt.
"It wasn't the best sleep I've ever had," he revealed at day's end, sporting a broad grin and nursing a Test batting average of 62.
"In my head I think I'd built up I was going to be ridiculously nervous, and it wasn't that bad in the end."
Even the circumstances of receiving his cherished Baggy Green cap from Andrew 'Ronnie' McDonald, the ex-Australia allrounder who was Pucovski's first coach in elite-level cricket, carried a tinge of the surreal due to restrictions imposed by the ongoing global pandemic.
Others who have received their Test caps on the first morning of the New Years's Test, including McDonald in 2009, have done so in front of packed grandstands and with loved ones nearby.
Due to social distancing requirements, there was but a scattering of fans in the SCG's historic members' stand when Pucovski fitted his new headwear over an ebullience of blond curls.
And his close-knit family were forced to watch the moment on television in Melbourne, where they were sent a video filmed by the cricket.com.au team inside the bubble because of the travel restrictions wrought by the coronavirus.
"It was nice to share it with someone I do have such a close connection with," Pucovski said of receiving the cap from his former Victoria mentor, now Australia assistant coach.
"Obviously I would have loved for mum, dad and my girlfriend to be up here to celebrate with me, and my mates but they obviously couldn't make it with the COVID restrictions.
"I was a tiny bit sad, especially for dad who's been there the whole way and been such a massive support to me so I was a bit disappointed that he couldn't make it up (to Sydney).
"But I'd only give that maybe one per cent …. the rest was 99 per cent elation."
Come stumps on Thursday evening, the 22-year-old – whose irrepressibly bright nature belies the setbacks he's encountered in pursuit of his dream – pronounced he had just enjoyed "probably my favourite day of cricket to date".
It's quite a call from someone whose first taste of senior cricket came at age eight when he was summoned as substitute fielder for Caulfield Cricket Club where his father, Jan, was playing and where he learned a lesson that would come to take on a more critical meaning as years went by.
As 'Ronnie' McDonald revealed in presenting Pucovski with cap number 460 for Australia's men's team, as a young boy in adult company young Will realised if the rock-hard cricket ball was aimed towards you at high velocity, it was best to get out of its way.
Having endured nine concussions, some through the most extraordinary bad luck, it's advice he employed in a variety of ways in his maiden Test innings.
India's bowlers didn't come at him with the bouncer barrage many (including Pucovski himself) expected in light of his history, but those that arrived were dealt with in ways that the batter himself acknowledged varied between successful and not-so.
Initially and instinctively he reacted to the short stuff with hooks and pulls, one of which yielded a top edge that soared towards fine leg and produced his first Test boundary.
From there, he became more judicious and as others came along he ducked his head, dropped his gloves to allow the ball to whizz harmlessly past his chest, or simply collapsed his knees if neither of those options were suitable.
Pucovski also admitted he changed his mind "about 200 times" when his new opening partner David Warner offered him the option of facing the innings' first ball before deciding he would tackle it "to get it out of the way".
He then saw Warner perish in the first half hour, seemingly still hobbled by the groin injury that had sidelined him for more than a month, before Pucovski himself was dropped twice by India keeper Rishabh Pant (on 26 and 32) and was almost run out attempting a third run having reached 39.
Amid that frantic half-hour, he was also resigned to having his maiden innings terminated when Pant appeared to claim the second of those chances as he dived with his back to the batter and umpire Paul Reiffel apparently agreed until television replays intervened.
"I thought he (Pant) had claimed it, so I just assumed he must have caught it," Pucovski said after stumps, with Australia 2-166 following a rain-interrupted day.
"Maybe I've got too much faith in people, but I was looking at it on the big screen and talking to Marnus (Labuschagne, his batting partner) and I said, 'I don't think that's out'.
"It looked like he'd smothered it into the ground.
"It (decision review facility) is another thing that doesn't really happen in Shield cricket, but it was pretty cool."
Not that anyone of fair mind could begrudge the right-hander some overdue fortune.
Pucovski's luckless run with concussion began at high school when, as a light-framed teen training with the Aussie rules squad, he was picked up in a tackle and slung head-long into a teammate's knee.
That blow saw him sidelined from all sporting activities for six months, but on return to the playing field he found new ways to sustain blows to his head.
Batting at practice one afternoon, he was sconed by a ball that flew from the bat of a player training alongside him and somehow found a way through the facility's protective netting.
There was the time he cracked his head on a doorknob at his family's Hampton home in Melbourne's bayside south, and he spent the evening of his 19th birthday under observation after copping a cricket ball to the side of his head while fielding.
That hit also coincided with the second day of his Sheffield Shield career, having scored 28 against New South Wales at the MCG on the first, and like so many others of the nine concussions he's endured to date it came about through abject misfortune.
Pucovski was fielding at mid-off for Victoria – not a position historically associated with the head knocks that are historically an occupational hazard for close-catchers – when he dived to stop a well-hit drive that leapt from an uneven section of a used pitch and clocked him near the temple.
Then there was the occasion last year when he was stealing a quick single while batting for Australia A against England Lions at Metricon Stadium on the Gold Coast, only for his bat to wedge in the turf causing him to tumble and hit his head on the ground.
That kept him out of cricket for the remainder of the season, and there were fears the glancing blow to his protective batting helmet while trying to evade a bouncer from uncapped India quick Kartik Tiyagi in a warm-up game last month might carry similar ramifications for his Test ambitions.
"It's been quite surreal, and a bit of a rollercoaster since getting hit about a month ago," he said.
"I've been to millions of different doctors it feels like, trying to get a bit of clarity and a bit of an answer as to what the go was going forward.
"I've been bounced non-stop in all cricket I've played, just with the history of concussions.
"I knew India would come at me pretty hard with it, and I felt like I handled it well at times and probably just went out of my bubble at other times.
"But it was just one of those days where I was just absolutely loving it.
"It was probably my favourite day of cricket to date, and it's a really exciting experience playing your first game for Australia but on top of that, obviously, with a bit of background to get to the position I'm in.
"It was just pretty awesome to be out there."
Vodafone Test Series v India 2020-21
Australia Test squad: Tim Paine (c), Sean Abbott, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Marcus Harris, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Moises Henriques, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Michael Neser, James Pattinson, Will Pucovski, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, Matthew Wade, David Warner
India Test squad: Ajinkya Rahane (captain), Rohit Sharma (vice-captain), Mayank Agarwal, Prithvi Shaw, Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari, Shubman Gill, Wriddhiman Saha (wk), Rishabh Pant (wk), Jasprit Bumrah, Navdeep Saini, Kuldeep Yadav, Ravindra Jadeja, R Ashwin, Mohammed Siraj, Shardul Thakur, Thangarasu Natarajan
First Test: Australia won by eight wickets
Second Test: India won by eight wickets
Third Test: January 7-11, SCG, 10.30am AEDT
Fourth Test: January 15-19, Gabba, 11am AEDT