Boorish, ungentlemanly, unsportsmanlike, cheat, bully. These are just some of the words used to describe David Warner recently. The left-hander, it is alleged, was Australia’s chief architect in their recent ball-tampering scandal. He has also been Australia’s leading enforcer on the field, their principal protagonist in what Steve Waugh termed “mental disintegration” of the opposition, and, according to reports, Australia’s least likeable player.
Among the uglier episodes he has been involved in was his words to former England batsman Jonathan Trott, struggling mightily with depression at the time. During what was probably one of the more difficult periods of Trott’s life, Warner remarked that his response to Mitchell Johnson’s searing onslaught was “pretty poor and pretty weak”. Considering the circumstances and the macho culture that surrounds sports, those were pretty hurtful words.
In January 2015, he had a spat with Indian batsman Rohit Sharma which led the late Martin Crowe to label him “the most juvenile cricketer I have seen on a cricket field", and during the recent series against South Africa, he was also involved in an ugly, much-publicised verbal skirmish with Quinton de Kock.
But it is the recent ball-tampering scandal that is probably his greatest infraction. Suspended by Cricket Australia for a year and dumped by sponsors, Warner stands to lose a lot financially.
Yet that may be the least of his worries. During a tearful press conference he expressed concern about the effect on his family. “First and foremost in my mind is the well-being of family,” Warner said. He then went on: “In the back of my mind I suppose there is a tiny ray of hope that I may one day be given the privilege of playing for my country again, but I am resigned to the fact that that may never happen.”
Cricket will survive without Warner, of course, but it would be sad if the 31-year-old, with much good cricket left in him, were never to play the game seriously again. Ball-tampering is a serious offence, “a stain on the game” as Warner himself admitted. And the southpaw, upon reflection, would agree that some of his behaviour over the years has indeed been boorish.
And yet Warner is more than just a boor and a troublemaker. He is also a very accomplished batsman in all formats of the game, a match-winner, a game changer, an innovator, a batsman whose forceful play instills fear in the ranks of the opposition.
Few batsmen in the game’s long history have played with such verve. A Warner innings is an adventure, one the viewing audience is only too happy to share with the left-hander. One afternoon’s belligerence could wreak wondrous damage on the opposition’s forces, leaving them in total disarray.
If the first delivery of an innings is there to be hit he will happily hit it to the boundary - or over it. Against the West Indies in Melbourne, during the Boxing Day Test of 2015, he smashed the first three deliveries he received to the ropes. The Caribbean side never recovered.
Like Virender Sehwag before him, Warner has not been a traditional opening batsman. Ordinarily, a Test-match opening batsman shows more circumspection than Warner exhibits. No taking off of the shine for him; he is at the bowler immediately, driving, cutting, pulling. There is some defence, of course, but not a lot, exemplifying what renowned cricket historian CLR James said of Wilton St Hill, a Trinidadian batsman from the early 1900s, that when he was in full flight, “it was the bowler who was in need of defence, not he”.
And yet he did learn to alter his approach somewhat when the situation demanded it. Against Bangladesh in Chittagong during the second Test of their 2017 visit, the diminutive swashbuckler made a vital, uncharacteristic 123 off all of 234 deliveries on a pitch where spin bowling dominated to the extent that Nathan Lyon captured 13 wickets in the game. He had scored 112 in the first Test which Australia lost. But his second century of the series helped his side draw level.
Despite his acknowledged skills and accomplishments in the game, however, it is Warner’s more unattractive qualities that have recently risen to the fore. He, his comrades, and what has been described as the ugly Australian cricket culture has been widely castigated. Behaviour they claimed was tough but fair is mostly seen as improper. They could only claim to have never crossed the line because they were the ones who drew it in the first place.
Warner has found himself at an uncertain juncture. So how will he move forward? He says he accepts full responsibility for the part he played on Day 3 in the Newlands Test. But could this have been the first and only time that they had tried to illegally alter the condition of the ball? Or was this just the first and only time they got caught?
He might need to come clean at some point in the future, if not to the public then at least to himself. He might need to re-examine his behaviour and repent for some of his past crimes and endeavour to change. He might not come back a better player after serving his time, but he could return a better man.