Bat like a wicketkeeper.
Ian Healy had a very simple message for Tim Paine, prior to last year’s fourth Ashes Test.
But what does ‘bat like a wicketkeeper’ actually mean?
The implication appeared to be to play aggressively, and be more positive.
“He was more tentative than he needed to be… I told him to get busy and not worry if he missed the middle of the bat,” Healy told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“The captaincy was weighing him down. I thought he was feeling the pressure of letting people down.”
The innings that followed was one of immense value. He may have contributed just 58, but Paine came in with the score at 5-224, and departed at 6-369. An evenly poised game had swung firmly in Australia’s favour.
Perhaps Healy’s talk of being weighed down by pressure had inspired a more relaxed mindset. This was not, however, the positive innings implied in batting like a wicketkeeper. Paine’s strike rate was 45.66, and he contributed just 58 of the 145 runs put on with Steve Smith. He batted slowly, and went through barren periods without scoring.
The modern, free-flowing wicketkeeper scores at a much faster rate. While Adam Gilchrist, with a Test average of 47.6 and strike rate of 81.95, is the extreme example, the likes of Quinton de Kock (average 39.13, strike rate 70.95), and Rishabh Pant (average 38.76, strike rate 68.57) also embody this mindset.
Paine’s career strike rate of 44.24, which is ironically similar to Healy’s, is of no comparison. But why should fielding in gloves dictate the way in which he approaches his batting?
Perhaps ‘bat like a number seven’ would be a better description than ‘bat like a wicketkeeper’. After all, a batting position, rather than a fielding position, has a greater impact on a batsman’s approach to an innings.
A comparison against other number seven batsmen highlights Paine’s unusually slow approach to Test match batting.
Here is a list of all players to play ten innings or more at number seven, since Paine returned to the Test arena on 23 November 2017, sorted by strike rate: Colin de Grandhomme 72.44, Hardik Pandya 71.27, Rishabh Pant 67.93, Sarfaraz Ahmed 66.96, Quinton de Kock 64.83, Niroshan Dickwella 63.6, Jos Buttler 58.04, Jonny Bairstow 52.34, Shane Dowrich 48.72, Moeen Ali 47.71, Tim Paine 44.52, Vernon Philander 37.83.
Paine beats only Vernon Philander, a bowler who can bat, languishing behind the typical rate of a modern number seven.
Why does this matter, though? In a match that takes place over five days, the speed at which runs are compiled is surely of limited concern.
To see where Paine ranks among his contemporaries, here is the same list ordered by average: Quinton de Kock 42.41, Rishabh Pant 39.06, Tim Paine 34.24, Colin de Grandhomme 34.17, Sarfaraz Ahmed 34.09, Hardik Pandya 29.77, Jos Buttler 29.66, Jonny Bairstow 29.45, Niroshan Dickwella 28.26, Shane Dowrich 28, Vernon Philander 17.87, Moeen Ali 16.58.
On this count, Paine is third, contributing more runs than the standard number seven. However, it is worth noting that his overall average since returning to Test cricket is actually 30.68, when innings at number six and number eight are included.
The average of all Test innings at number seven during this period is 29.63. Paine is, albeit slightly, above average by comparison to his competitors at number seven.
Despite the modern idea of a prolific wicketkeeper-batsman at number seven, on average, the position still produces less than 30. The likes of Gilchrist are the exception, not the norm.
Paine’s slow approach has some major benefits. He spends longer at the crease than a typical number seven, building valuable partnerships, and prolonging the exposure of the tail.
Indeed, when that same list is sorted by average balls faced per dismissal, Paine comes out convincingly on top: Tim Paine 76.90, Quinton de Kock 65.41, Rishabh Pant 57.50, Shane Dowrich 57.47, Jonny Bairstow 56.27, Jos Buttler 51.11, Sarfaraz Ahmed 50.91, Vernon Philander 47.25, Colin de Grandhomme 47.17, Niroshan Dickwella 44.43, Hardik Pandya 41.78, Moeen Ali 34.76.
This is an approach that is reaping rewards. While Paine’s individual totals rarely gain him many plaudits, the partnerships he is involved in are incredibly useful.
Let’s look at some examples. In last summer’s Perth Test match, Paine batted for over three hours on Day 2, making 39 off 105 balls, including just two boundaries. He spent an entire session batting slowly with bowlers at the other end, prolonging the end of the innings to ensure Australia took the new ball under lights. New Zealand lost five wickets that night.
At the same venue the previous year, Paine came in during the second innings with a lead of 163 on the board. With uncertainty as to whether Aaron Finch would return from a finger injury, and otherwise just bowlers left to bat, India remained a genuine chance to win the match.
Paine’s 116-ball score of 37, while remembered by virtually no one, was incredibly valuable in this context. By the time he was dismissed, the lead was 235. On a tricky batting wicket, Australia would ultimately set India 287 runs to win.
An even less notable innings was his contribution in the first innings at Lord’s last year. Paine came to the crease at 5-102. With an out-of-form with the bat Pat Cummins, Peter Siddle, Nathan Lyon and Josh Hazlewood to come, Australia had an unusually weak tail.
A batting collapse looked likely, and would have decimated Australia’s chances in this match.
Paine’s score was only 23, but he faced 70 balls, and spent more than an hour and a half at the crease, putting on 60 with Steve Smith. Australia would end up scoring a competitive 250.
While Smith deserves the credit for this team score, his partnerships with Paine, and later Cummins, prevented him from running out of partners. Australia ultimately saved the match on Day 5, with four wickets in hand. Those 98 minutes that Paine spent with Smith would have been useful to England at the end.
None of these innings will go down as historic, but all of them reflect the value of a carefully constructed 20 or 30 by a number seven. A high-risk crash-and-bash approach would likely have achieved a different result, exposing the tail earlier.
While Paine is yet to make a Test century, he contributes with the bat more consistently than most.
Indeed, of Australia’s 21st century wicketkeepers (excluding Graham Manou), Paine is the least likely to be dismissed for less than 20.
This list illustrates the percentage of scores less than 20: Tim Paine 32, Adam Gilchrist 41.61, Matthew Wade (as wicketkeeper) 43.1, Brad Haddin 50, Peter Nevill 65.22.
While this does not mean he is a better batsman than Adam Gilchrist, it reflects the regularity with which he contributes with the bat.
As highlighted by the examples above, Paine does not need to make 50 to make a valuable contribution. Therefore, his scores of 20-plus reflect the fact that he contributes more regularly than any Australian keeper-batsman this century.
While his ability to get a start but not convert into a century would be frustrating for a top-order batsman, it’s worth considering the role of a number seven.
Since Paine’s return in the last home Ashes series, number seven batsmen have made just 11 centuries in Test cricket. In the same time period, Smith has served a year-long suspension, yet still made six.
The expectations on a number seven are entirely different. Those 11 centuries make up just 3.38 per cent of completed innings in that time frame. In short, the average number seven reaches 100 very rarely. Paine’s regular scores between 20 and 49 surely outweigh the absence of a once-in-a-blue-moon century.
His slow and steady approach leads to consistent contributions, as opposed to a hit-and-miss, crash-and-bash approach. Consider this: has Australia ever suffered as a result of Paine’s slow batting?
His 114-ball 45 in the inaugural Canberra Test match was unusual, and probably not appropriate in the circumstances, as he abruptly declared without accelerating the run rate. However, Australia won that Test by 366 runs before tea on Day 4.
The reality is that there are very few draws in modern Test cricket. In 2019, there were just four draws, and all of them were impacted by rain.
In this context, where batsmen are scoring quicker and innings are ending sooner, a player that can occupy the crease holds considerable value by tiring the opposing team out in the field. Where slow innings may previously have jeopardised the chance of a result, that is no longer true in modern cricket.
Tim Paine does not bat like a normal wicketkeeper, or number seven batsman. He makes as many runs as a typical number seven, but takes longer to do it, building valuable partnerships, and prolonging the completion of an innings.
His unique approach relies on patience and consistency: two important traits, which contravene the pattern of free-flowing, modern cricket.
Much of the criticism directed at Paine surrounds his batting, and he isn’t a world-class batsman. He does, however, play an important and underappreciated role with the bat.