BRISBANE: Eight pins and a metal plate in his right index finger bear testament to the once-stalled cricket career of wicketkeeper Tim Paine, who will make a surprise return on Thursday after his shock selection for the Ashes.
The Tasmanian’s recall to the Australian Test team for the first time in seven years for Thursday’s opener with England was greeted with widespread disbelief.
It’s been 78 Tests since Paine last wore the baggy green Australia cap, after a gruesome finger injury almost ended the 32-year-old gloveman’s flourishing playing career.
Paine was once hailed as Australia’s next big thing, a rising wicketkeeper-batsman who had the potential to captain his country.
But he smashed his finger while batting in an exhibition match in 2010. It caused him to lose his spot in the Test side and, following a series of complications, he never won it back — until now.
Paine’s finger now comprises bone from his hip and wrist, but he says it’s the strongest it’s been in years.
“Behind the stumps I was pretty good straight away, it didn’t worry me too much,” Paine recalled this week.
“But with batting, it really did affect me. I was battling mentally, I was out there thinking I was going to get hit and if I did get hit I’d never play again.
“It certainly rattled me a lot.”
Work with a sports psychologist enabled Paine to overcome his batting phobias, and he has reshaped his batting grip to better suit the pins and plate in his right hand.
It was his unbeaten 71 for Tasmania last week on the eve of Test selection that came just at the right time.
But Australia greats were baffled as to how Paine, who has been wicketkeeper in just three Sheffield Shield games in the past two years and has not scored a first-class hundred since 2006, could find himself behind the stumps in an Ashes Test.
– ‘Risky selection’ –
Former Test captain Allan Border was among those perplexed by the choice of wicketkeeper.
“It seems bizarre to me,” Border said. “That’s a real risky selection from the panel. All the ‘keepers around the country will be scratching their head saying ‘what the hell is going on?'”
Yet Paine has taken all the criticism in his stride, and hopes he can now seize his chance to realise his potential after his ghastly finger injury.
“The opportunity has come at a really good time for me,” Paine said.
“The past five or six months I’ve really started to bat well again and I’ll go into this Test with some confidence.
“I’ve had some success in the few Tests I have played, so I’ll take some confidence from that.”
Paine’s work behind the stumps has not been questioned. He has been hailed as the best technical gloveman in the country.
It’s just that the opportunities have passed him by.
His Tasmanian state side has looked to others in recent seasons, drafting in imports for the wicketkeeper role instead of Paine, and this year Test incumbent Matthew Wade also returned home from a decade with Victoria.
“I always had faith I would be playing,” Paine said.
“I didn’t know what level that would be, but I’ve always been plugging away and been keen to get back in the Tassie Shield team and always had confidence that my best cricket would be good enough.”
Now his unexpected Test chance has arrived, and Paine is not about to let it go.
“I’m not here for five minutes, I’m here to make the most of this opportunity,” he said.
“To be honest, I’m sick of talking about being the person who hurt his finger and what could have been six or seven years ago.
“That’s the way I’m looking at this opportunity.”