David Warner’s summer started with boos. It ended with them, too.
Crowds always have the Warner fear. He’s barely scored a run in this Ashes series and yet, as he walked out on the fourth day, an improbable chase of 399 looming, the whispers went around.
“Well, Warner is due some runs.”
“Flat pitch, series done? It’s perfect for him.”
“Could this be the day?”
Warner is the pantomime villain wherever Australia go. He even grew a Dick Dastardly moustache to twiddle a few years back. People describe him as someone who holds grudges but they don’t put him off; he thrives on being in the moment, being in the thick of things, and proving people wrong.
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When he performs, his batting is a metaphorical two fingers up to his critics. When he first started playing Test cricket, he was dismissed as a T20 slogger. “Not a proper opener,” came the sniffs.
But going into this Ashes series, Warner was the player most feared. Not Steve Smith – Warner.
That’s what this Ashes series was going to be. Warner’s redemption.
Coming on the back of a sterling World Cup, where he hit three centuries and finished as the tournament’s second-leading run-scorer, people expected Warner to easily translate his white-ball form to the Test arena. Smith, with all his ticks and jitters, would be the one to struggle, people said; Warner was as good as ever.
But as the sun shone on Sunday afternoon, Warner trudged off The Oval. Stuart Broad had got him again, the seventh time in 10 innings. Ninety five runs in 10 Test innings, the lowest ever return for an opener playing a five-Test series.
The signs that Warner has been desperate to impose himself have been there.
He doesn’t like to take the first ball of the match, yet in the second innings at Old Trafford, Ashes on the line, and in the first at The Oval, his Test career potentially on the line, he made sure he was there, facing Broad.
No-one was going to accuse Broad of having the wood on him; no-one was going to say that Warner was scared of facing Broad.
He went for a duck at Old Trafford, completing a pair. At The Oval he played a frenetic innings, slashing wildly at Broad before falling to Jofra Archer in the next over.
Each time, he was booed heartily off the ground, the crowd happily rising to their feet to wave off the villain of the piece. By contrast, when Smith fell for the final time, he was given a standing ovation, boos silenced by the sheer weight of runs he scored in the series.
Warner embraces his role as a villain, partly because he knows the crowds won’t relent, but also as a way of fitting in. At Edgbaston, he basked in the applause of the Hollies Stand after he showed them his pockets were empty in response to their chanting.
He’s also more complex than the villain stereotype perpetuates.
He grew up in government housing – the Australian equivalent of council housing – and packed boxes in a supermarket when he was 15 to help his parents pay the rent. He also saw violence growing up, telling Cricinfo in 2015 about a murder that took place outside his house.
“We didn’t hear it but we saw the body lying there,” he said.
Warner is now regarded as the fittest player in the Australia side for which he credits his wife, Candice. A former Ironwoman, she got him to cut down the drinking and join her on her 6am runs on the beach.
Warner is fiercely protective of her; the altercation in the stairwell with Quinton de Kock came after the South African reportedly insulted Warner’s wife, and Candice was reduced to tears by misogynistic crowd chants about her during that fateful tour.
She flew over to England before the World Cup to give birth to their third child and she and the children have stayed close on what has been a long, gruelling summer.
Warner was vice-captain before the ball-tampering scandal and it was something he embraced. He was the one who spoke to the bowlers during the game. Even now, when Australia take a wicket, Warner is there, always cheering louder than everyone else.
If he takes a catch, his roar of celebration is the most exaggerated, fists clenched, head thrown back, an animalistic yell escaping into the air above.
When Nathan Lyon fluffed the run-out of Jack Leach in that astonishing game at Headingley, it was Warner who was the first player to reach him, arms out in celebration, grin stretched across his face, before he realised what had happened.
Warner has been in good spirits despite a horrible run with the bat. He’s not someone who is always in the middle of things off the field. Sometimes he plays cards with the team, other times he’ll sit quietly, headphones on.
He has a Smithesque routine at the crease; the knees bend, the bat hits the floor, the gloves are undone and then redone after every delivery.
When he came to the crease on the fourth day at The Oval, every ball was an event. The crowd clapped as Broad ran in. In between overs, there was Warner, practising defensive shots, trying to line up the angle that Broad was spearing the ball in from.
He made Archer wait until he was ready, until he had gone through his routines. His shouts of “no run” were loud enough to echo around the ground. His one four, cut furiously off the back foot, hinted at the form that had made him, for a time, the best opener in the world.
And then it ended as it had started. A thick edge off Broad, caught at slip. Warner had a shake of the head and a wry smile as he walked off, boos ringing in his ears.
Smith has earned the respect, begrudging or otherwise, of the England crowd. Warner, you suspect, will never be able to scale those heights.
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