It was Marnus Labuschagne’s summer, David Warner hit a triple century, Nathan Lyon had a career-best season and Pat Cummins remained the No. 1 bowler in the world, but when pressed to pick his highlight of Australia’s 5-0 home Test campaign, coach Justin Langer singled out captain Tim Paine.
On the back of retaining the Ashes and now leading the side to a sweep of the summer against New Zealand and Pakistan, Paine has gone from an emergency captain in times of crisis to a likely longer-term leader with visions of taking the side through to 2021.
For Langer, it has been both Paine’s leadership and his work behind the stumps that stood out even though his performances did not produce the headline-grabbing feats of many of his team-mates. But in Melbourne, Paine had one of his finest all-round games too, with a bustling 79 and eight dismissals with glovework that remained almost faultless all season.
“Highlight of the summer would be Tim Paine’s captaincy and wicketkeeping,” Langer said. “People will be going ‘what about Marnus?’. I could tell a story about the comeback of Mitchell Starc after playing only one [Ashes] Test match. I could talk about David Warner’s 300 and how well he’s batted after what’s happened in the Ashes. I could talk about Nathan Lyon again, what a role he plays. I could talk about Pat Cummins being the best fast bowler in the world. I could talk about Travis Head’s hundred. I could talk about Matthew Wade letting [Neil] Wagner hit him over and over again.
“I could talk about every one of our players but I think Painey’s leadership, strategically and tactically, has been excellent. The way he took to the [focus of the] Test Championship, the way he kept wicket, a few of his innings, I thought Painey was brilliant this summer. And of course Marnus was great too.”
Langer said that the five Test victories by such convincing margins had “probably” exceeded expectations and gave the season an eight out of ten when asked to rate it. “After the Ashes, we needed to get better. We needed to get tougher,” he said, before explaining where the extra points could come from. “We dropped a few catches, a few run outs, a few of the boys got starts they would have liked hundreds. There’s always room for improvement.”
Even during the difficult times Australia have had over the last 18 months, the bowling attack was rarely an issue. The biggest success of the season has been stabilising the top order through Warner’s run-glut against Pakistan and then the series-ending hundred at the SCG, his productive partnership with Joe Burns – even though Burns’ returns were more modest – and Labuschagne’s stunning output at No. 3. It meant that a more modest season for Steven Smith, who averaged under 40 and did not score a century, was barely noticed although some of Smith’s contributions against New Zealand were vital.
“We talked about a couple of things when we came back from the Ashes. One was cementing our top three. I think we’ve done that. The second one was winning after winning. We had to get better after that. I think we did that right throughout the summer,” Langer said. “What [Marnus] has done is mind-blowing, really. It’s a great credit to his mental and physical endurance. It’s a great credit to his humility that he’s been able to stay so grounded through it all.
“Don’t underestimate the impact Steve Smith had on this series. He didn’t get the big hundreds and the big accolades but he chewed up a lot of balls when it really mattered in the first innings. He was outstanding without doing the superhuman stuff he did in during the Ashes but he had a great series.”
Australia’s next Test assignment is two matches against Bangladesh in June. Before then there is a return to limited-overs cricket with the one-day squad leaving for India on Thursday – a trip Langer will miss as he takes a break, handing over to Andrew McDonald – then a T20I and ODI tour of South Africa in late February. The men’s home summer splutters back into life for three ODIs against New Zealand in mid-March before a trip across the Tasman for three T20Is.