Saturday, 14 November 2015

The Warner Metamorphosis

Arthur Morris has always been the best opener to wear the Baggy Green. For anyone, student or professor of the game, he has always been one of the automatic choices: Bradman, Lillee, Lindwall, Warne and Morris. Argue about the rest. It hasn't seemed likely, since way back in the middle 1950's, that anyone would take him from the mantle and some good ones have come and gone. Lawry, Simpson, Taylor, Hayden ... lots of them. Then there's Warner.

To the casual observer - the sort that wears the ODI colours to a Test match and contents themselves with swimming in the swill of plastic cups, cardborard trays and "Oi, Oi, Oi" - Warner has been a poster boy for arrogance and aggression. He became the pocket-sized Hayden, blasting away with bat and mouth. He was the uncouth, unleashed Mr Hyde to Michael Clarke's more measured Dr Jekyl. He smacked Joe Root - a Hooray Henry if ever there was one. He spotted the fear in Jonathan Trott's eyes and lacked the grace to keep it to himself. He spat obscenities and verbal intimidation at batsmen in an escalating crescendo which had begun to be heard across even the biggest Australian coliseums and over the buffoons baying for blood beyond the boundary.

He was crass; he was destructive; he was belligerent. For the media, he was like a Ricky Ponting that never grew up. Every day was a Bourbon and Beafsteak incident presented to them on a platter in media conferences and casual events. Terry Hayes may have coined the term to describe  Derryn Hinch but none fitted the tag "Human Headline" better than David Warner.

Two things happened which finally confronted him in  away that no fast bowler ever has.

He was there when Phil Hughes died the first time, right in front of him, on the field. He suffered for a long time after and still raises his face to the heavens at significant moments. For the first time in his abrasive life, he couldn't change events by his actions and cricket took second place. Life happened to David Warner when he least expected it. It so often does to us mortals but the high fliers we assume mostly miss those moments of pain, buoyed as they are by their talent and unremitting success. A mate died, doing what he loved, what Warner also loves. It shocked him into thinking he hadn't ever experienced, ever expected - doubt for instance and the potential for his own mortality - and it made him face something that would overwhelm him into change.

Then along came Candace Falzon. An outstanding athlete, drop-dead gorgeous and linked to a long list of high profile beaus, she had lived out her own wildness in public life, including an infamous incident recorded on a smartphone, inconveniently in a convenience with Sony Bill Williams at the Clovelly Hotel. What good could come from the union of two such wildcards? Living glamorous lives, their every move was recorded and regurgitated in trashy magazines, even trashier newsprint and on low brow new media outlets, almost all, strangely enough but without coincidence, owned by an American who had once been proud to be an Australian king maker before money and power bought his citizenship.

Like poles are not supposed to attract and certainly not meant to create a field which magnetises into strength, but it did and the metamorphosis of both has been one of the great revelations of Australian public sporting life. Mrs Warner - yes the change of surname, professional and otherwise, was instant following their April wedding - is now a mother. Her husband, has become someone the yobbos in the cheap seats may still worship but would hardly recognise. Gone is the excess weight, a product of the rigour of a training program designed and executed by his Ironwomen wife but of more significance, the rough, thoughtless public utterances have slowly devolved into measured comment, made less often and with strategic placement. There is less drinking and more talk of his babies.

It started to show in the West Indies. Warner was more circumspect on the field. His mouth said little and his focus became so inward that team management and his captain were starting to question his motives and his longevity in the side. His returns were meager but with Australia winning, his place in the side was assured, given his previous twelve months but coach and captain both fired warning shots across his bow before a ball was bowled in England. "Warner needs to make runs. That's his job in the side and he needs to get on with it" (Lehmann). Warner, answering howls from the media that he was backing off the aggression and going all new-age, made it clear he didn't want to continue as the go-to man when opposition sides needed to be softened up. Clarke denied any such instruction had been given but then he also denied a rift between he and Simon Katich had ended the former opener's career when he was one of the two form batsmen in a struggling side. Honesty depends on the question, not the answer.

In England, Cook's bowlers exposed a flaw in Warner's technique which had been apparent in the Caribbean. When facing a ball short of a length which slid across him toward slip, his bat would describe an arc across the ball at 45 degrees. To a standard field setting this exposed no problem but when tempted by a 7-2 field, Warner would try to ease the ball to the big gaps on the leg side, resulting in top edges and snicks to slip. The pre-2015 Warner would have blazed away, living and dying by the sword with little thought and many expletives but as the series progressed, so did his batting and despite Steve Smith's two grand centuries, it was Warner's consistency - a fifty in each Test - that made him Australia's best.

It wasn't the first time Warner had batted with responsibility and control. His first Test hundred, carrying his bat when all around him fell to complacency and lazy stroke play in a narrow loss to the Kiwis in Hobart, remains among his best. This was early Warner, when his place in the side was not just being questioned but ridiculed. Purists thought he belonged where he emerged from, nothing more than a lesser Hayden, just another short form, flat track bully.

Age and loss of form and injury and the disappointment of a fourth consecutive defeat in the Old Dart made changes to the Australian team not just inevitable but immediate and a sweep of the senior players meant leadership was suddenly an issue and it was into this gap that a changed, battle hardened but maturer David Warner flowed. Who would give the vice captaincy to this rogue who two years earlier had been sent packing from an Ashes tour for taking a swig and a swing too many? Smart men would. Daren Lehmann, equaled only as a man-manager in Australian sport by Wayne Bennett, was one of them. Rod Marsh, the man who did so much to build the brilliant stream of young talent that flowed into the Test side in the 1990's and early 2000's was another. Perhaps, unlike the rest of us, they remembered that the swing at Root was a statement against the disrespect of a fellow player, not on the grounds of his playing ability but on racial and religious grounds. Perhaps they remember the private approaches and quiet supportive contact Warner made after the last English Ashes disaster down under, to the fallen Trott. Perhaps they've never sat among the plastered punters and judged a man by what he was or projected their own aspirations on what they want him to be. Perhaps they embrace change and recognise that it is a consistent quality in those who rise above the very good to become the very great.

Three consecutive hundreds later, admittedly against a poorly constructed attack which has failed to execute any semblance of a plan and so many of us are suddenly surprised at the change. We should have been paying attention. On the first day in Perth, where Warner would have blasted an abrasive hundred and left the crowd breathless, he waited on the ball to punish without mercy, removed the shots which gave away a chance at his wicket and crushed the life from the opposition. He was ruthless and relentless in aggregating singles. He was something he has never been. Always capable of short term focus and vicious attack, his two first innings against New Zealand have been about a longer view; a focus that goes beyond the next ball, the next over and the next swaggering shot. He has batted with intent. He announced his double century two days before the game and then went to the wicket and achieved it. Along the way, there was no scowling, no aggro, no harsh words spoken in victory to remind New Zealand of their failings. There were smiles, raised eyebrows and even the signs of humility.

Warner with daughter Ivy.
His has been change from the outside in. It was the sort of change Shane Warne never achieved and never will. Yet he has lost none of his competitiveness. He called Brendon McCullum for his comments on the Ben Stoles handled-the-ball incident but then, left it at that. It was largely done in support of his fledgling boss and will have been the first welds made with another character unlike him. He ignored what followed. The fact thecricketragics disagrees with his assessment is neither here nor there. Like his bat, his edge has just got wider, not sharper.

Becoming a man hasn't killed him; it's made him stronger.

It was always likely Arthur Morris may have to move over one day. Cricket is like that. Champions will continue to rise for comparison. Its one of the aspects of the game most loved by its lovers. Warner is only 29. Those things that I liked in that overcast Hobart have been retained, re-badged and refined. A bright shiny thing was tarnished to look like lead but has now become gold.

I guess I could always open with two lefthanders.