A couple of years ago, the idea that Australia’s Test team would be waiting for salvation at the hands of David Warner would have been humorous. During his exile from the national team there was no assurance that he would be accepted back at all. Winning over the dressing room was a prerequisite.
Once he did return in England in 2019, a prolific but workmanlike World Cup was forgotten by public sentiment after Warner endured the Ashes version of the Book of Job. He almost literally couldn’t make a run, while his fellow exile Steve Smith got to play the prodigal son, returning from the wilderness to acclaim. (The sacrificial calf was provided by Jimmy Anderson after four overs at Edgbaston.)
At the time, Warner was pilloried for the way his record leant towards home conditions. Averaging 66 in Australia was held up as a weakness, an excess creating an even bolder disparity with his middling work overseas.
At present, though, a home-ground glutton is what his teammates need. For their second tour running, the Indian visitors have won the Boxing Day Test by a distance. With a new year easing into its opening week, the current series sits at 1-1 with two matches to play. Thus far the home team hasn’t got past 200 in an innings.
In a development that makes everybody feel that the world is tilted on the wrong axis, Smith is now the one who can’t get a ball away. His four innings for a total of 10 runs have left a hole in the middle order, after the top was already thrown out of whack by Warner missing with a groin strain.
Joe Burns suffered a public trial and has mercifully been released back to the Big Bash where he was last seen lumping sixes over long-on for Brisbane against the Sydney Thunder on Monday night. Matthew Wade has worked hard to do a makeshift job as his partner, but has been an electrician playing a plumber. Australia have had no sense of solidity to start an innings.
Warner is the one who so routinely brings that. He is the batsman who has mastered batting in these conditions. Where his early style was to get bored and try landing the ball in someone’s drink, his later method is to push the shortest distance wherever the field has a gap, hustling singles, driving or steering boundaries often enough that the gaps remain available.
It is a game built on minimalism, but accumulation no longer tires him out. If you play Warner in Australia then you have to face that fact that he is fitter than you, faster than you, and more patient than you. He will outlast anyone. After passing 300 in Adelaide last summer he was still hustling each run to look for a second.
His method works. Warner has 18 centuries in Australia, as many as Don Bradman. The only players ahead of him are Matthew Hayden with 21 and Ricky Ponting with 23. Both played more matches to get there, Ponting over twice as many. Warner could yet catch them both.
That’s what Australia need in this series. Not a dominant attacking hundred, but one free of risk and free of fuss. A relentless build-up of runs on the first day, batting India out of a game while it has barely begun. Creating space and time for the batsmen to follow. This is how Australia’s winning seasons go, and what has so markedly not happened this time.
Stacked against that is Warner’s possible lack of fluency and definite lack of fitness, with the opener having to return in a hurry given the series scoreline and the fate of Burns. His injury won’t worsen but it’s hampering his mobility.
“For me it’s about my speed between wickets, that’s all that matters,” he said in a press conference on Saturday. “It’s about the drop-and-run, helping the guy at the other end get off strike. They are the things I like to be 100 per cent fit for. In this case, I’m most likely not going to be, but I’ll have to work out myself how I’m going to manage that.”
On the ledger in Warner’s favour is that he’ll be back at the Sydney Cricket Ground, home to four of his tons in his last five outings there. One of those came before lunch on the first day against Pakistan, another came against India the last time he played them in 2015. The one time that he didn’t make a hundred, he made 56 and Australia won by an innings.
The other thing helping Warner is that he’ll be facing a depleted pace attack, with only Jasprit Bumrah left of India’s best five. There will likely be one bowler on debut and another in his second Test, and Warner has a habit of demoralising the inexperienced. But Bumrah remains formidable, as does the spin of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja to follow.
More than is reasonable, the path of the series seems to depend on this: the player just now dropping into the series, without a minute in the middle. Lots of history on his side, but a tendon creaking like a rusty gate. A good record doesn’t obviate the difficulty of what faces him.
Perhaps it’s a hiding to nothing. Saving the series won’t sway those who harbour reservations, but if he doesn’t save it then the Ashes disapproval will be voiced anew. But that’s the job ahead. For some of the cricket public, Warner might still be an outcast. For those in the team that he’s rejoining, nobody this coming week could matter more.