When Tim Paine's right thumb bore the brunt of a Chadd Sayers delivery as he kept up to the stumps on day two, Australia's 46th Test captain was clearly in enormous discomfort. Such knocks are familiar to wicketkeepers, as any close inspection of the mangled digits of a longtime stumper such as Ian Healy or Brad Haddin will confirm.
But there was something deeper at play as he grimaced and shook his right hand, before seeking the attention of the team physio David Beakley at the end of the over. As captain of a team badly shaken by the events of the past week, Paine has needed to show the way, something he did verbally when outlining a fresh direction for the team on day one. Moreover, there was no vice-captain appointed for this match, meaning the team would literally have been rudderless without his continued presence.
Overnight in Australia, the former captain and CA Board director Mark Taylor had spoken unequivocally about Paine's status as captain of the team - he is most definitely not a stopgap until the selectors and board can think things over. "He's the permanent solution," Taylor had said on Channel Nine. "Right now, he's the 46th Australian cricket team captain."
For a moment or two it looked as though a rapid call would have to be made about who would replace him, thanks to what was later diagnosed as a hairline thumb fracture. But Paine gritted his teeth, slotted the inner and glove back onto his throbbing right hand, and persisted. He would go on, as well, to another of the exceptionally calm, organised and constructive innings he has authored at No. 7 this series, helping to fashion with Pat Cummins Australia's highest partnership of the series. That 99 could take this mark said everything about where Australia have failed to make the runs required to win here, but at the same time Paine and Cummins showed they were not simply going to roll over.
"Yeah, you want to play, don't you? I was hoping," Paine said of the moments after he was struck. "The initial hit hurt and I was hoping if I gave it five-10 minutes it might settle down. It hurts a little bit but as I said I've had my fair share of finger injuries and compared to a couple of them this one isn't too bad. It's got a little crack in it. I've played through worse. All we know at the moment is some sort of break in it. It's all in place which is good. Barring another hit in this Test it should be OK."
As a cricketer, much of Paine's range of life experiences stemmed from somewhere quite close to his right thumb - the very next finger in fact. After suffering a nasty break when batting in a Twenty20 exhibition match at the Gabba in November 2010, Paine needed no fewer than seven surgeries on the digit before it settled down. He then faced a crisis of confidence in his batting that flowed out of all the time out of the game. Paine worked with sports psychologists and notably the Tigers batting coach Jeff Vaughan to rediscover what had him spoken about as a future leader for, by his own recollection, "about two weeks" earlier in the same year his finger broke.
Since then, he has fought his way back into the Tasmanian and then Australian teams, before quickly assuming a senior role in the team by dint of his deft glovework, neat, determined batting and the mind and temperament of a leader. In summing up why the selectors had plumped for Paine over the likes of Matthew Wade, Peter Nevill and the younger Alex Carey, Taylor spoke of his character and demeanour as much as his skills.
"I think one of the reasons he found his way into the Test team was because he's a bit of an old fashioned type cricketer," Taylor said. "There was a lot of chat before last year's Ashes where we talked about Peter Nevill and we talked about Matthew Wade. The selectors saw Tim Paine, they got him into a match against England, a lead-up match, and they said that's the sort of guy we want in and around this team, a bit more of an old-world thinker, more of a level head. We've seen how things can change very quickly."
Needing to remain calm in the face of rapidly changing circumstances was something Paine was once again called upon to do on the second evening, a few hours after the blow to the thumb. Coming to the crease at 96 for 5, he soon saw the last of the specialist batsmen, Shaun Marsh, edging Keshav Maharaj to slip. That made it 16 wickets for 146 since the previous Australian partnership of any note, between the banished David Warner and Cameron Bancroft on the final day at Newlands. What followed was not enough to wrest control of the match, but it at least marked a point at which Australia began to start pushing back against what had become a monotonous pageant of South African domination against spooked opponents.
"We were really disappointed with the way things went yesterday and we spoke about that," Paine said. "Today, to come out and have a response, we're obviously still a long way behind the game, there's no doubt about that. But I thought the spirit and the fight with the bat and then to come out, I thought the discipline our bowlers showed, we didn't get the wickets that we perhaps deserved. But I was really proud at the way they stuck at it and the same with our fielding group. I thought our fielding energy right through the innings was excellent. That's what we're about."
Cummins has, alongside Paine, been the major source of hope for Australia on this tour, beneficiary of not only enormous natural talent but also the fact he has begun to play matches consistently. "We all know how good Pat is as an all-round cricketer. I think this tour he's been superb. He was fantastic in the Ashes as well," Paine said. "The pleasing thing for Pat is that he's starting to get some real consistent cricket into him and he's playing a lot of cricket, bowling a lot of overs and he's getting through it. So I think the confidence he's getting out of that is holding him in really good stead going forward."
Likewise, Paine is gaining confidence as a batsman all the time, having needed a second innings half-century for Tasmania against Victoria at the MCG back in November to confirm to the selectors they could choose him for Australia. A pattern of being stranded with the tail has not allowed Paine the luxury of going on to a truly big innings, but his consistency has put the rest of the batting line-up very much in the shade. Asked whether he might move up the order, Paine showed the "old school" attitude to his role that Taylor noted.
"No, I don't think so. I'll bat at seven where the wicketkeeper bats," he said. "Sometimes it happens with tails. Sometimes we get knocked over quite quickly and other times, like today, we can dig in and score a few runs. In this team that's my role, to try and eke out as many runs as I can with the tail. If that means that I'm not out at the end or, like today, you try to put the foot down a bit. It just depends on the wicket as well. I like to show a lot of faith in our tail and let them bat as well at times but I think on that wicket today it might have been a bit more difficult for them."
Difficult was certainly a word to describe the task facing Paine this week, still more so from the moment his thumb was struck. But Paine's response was heartening for all who watched him both in the team and beyond the boundary. Out of the chaos of this week, a leader of quality has emerged.