Seeing a player’s 100th Test match is a rare thing. Not as rare as it once was, with most of the 72 on the list beginning their careers in the 1990s or 2000s, but it will grow rarer as countries pare back their Test programs. Thirteen Australians have passed the mark, the kind who don’t need first names in a forum like this: Hayden, Taylor, Langer, Boon, Lyon, Clarke, Healy, McGrath, Waugh, Waugh, Warne, Border, Ponting. That gives the context to the achievement David Warner will complete on Boxing Day, applying cricket’s magic number to a riotous career.
While the week leading up should be one of celebration, right now it comes shot through with strong strands of negativity. Warner’s returns with the bat have diminished, and while opinions vary as much as on any subject, there is increasing noise about whether his milestone should also be a stop sign.
Sport media and some followers love retirements. When players are yet to debut we talk them up as the next big thing. After they start, we make them up-and-comers. Usually they falter for a while, get taken apart by analysis, figure out their games and become steady performers, boringly distant from any narrative. So as soon as they peak we start wondering aloud about the end. In cricket, this can go on for a decade. It always gives people something to talk about.
When an older player fades, speculation grows in aggression. Some observers seem personally affronted that a player is still out there when that person thinks they should be done. They begin to take enjoyment in failures, given that those failures validate the argument, and the argument validates the credentials of the observer. The idea that most of us don’t have a clue what is happening most of the time is not readily embraced.
David Warner at 36 years old is not the same player as David Warner at 26. He has been tentative against fast bowling, noticeably in the last year since Mark Wood targeted him in the Ashes. His ability to throw his hands through wide deliveries has recently brought more dismissals than runs. What that doesn’t prove is whether the latter problem is a run of bad luck compared to a permanent decline, or whether the former problem is one that an adaptable player can’t find a way around.
Interpreting stats to suit an argument is a part of cricket as old and intrinsic as spot-fixing and ball-tampering. It’s popular at the moment to cite Warner’s zero centuries in three years, less so to note that injury and the pandemic kept him to two matches in the first two years of that span. Straight after those two years he made 94 in Brisbane, 95 in Adelaide, and a fast 38 in the low-scoring Melbourne match, setting up the team for three match-winning scores to seal the Ashes in straight sets. Wood may have worried him, but didn’t stop him.
It’s popular to look at his poor average in the last year, somewhere in the 20s depending where you start. There are more low scores in that span than usual, across the remaining Ashes matches and overseas tours. There were also half-centuries in Pakistan in opening partnerships of 156 and 96 that were vital to Australia’s historic series win. Talk about his lack of runs against a poor West Indies team will also write off his series opener of 48 because it was against a poor West Indies team. The closing argument is that he made zero and three at the Gabba, in a match where 34 wickets fell in less than two days on a pitch that challenged everyone with the speed and angle of its bounce.
So it’s true that Warner isn’t setting the world alight, and it’s also true that a sample size of a handful of matches does not mean a lot for someone about to play his 100th. Warner has had a career of constant evolution. When he got plucked for Australia he was a T20 kid who New South Wales didn’t trust to play in the Sheffield Shield. Two years later in his second Test he carried his bat on a greentop in a masterclass of caution against New Zealand swing. A month later he belted India for 180 off 159 balls. By 2014 he was batting for longer than ever, making double centuries and eventually a triple.
Even overseas, where returns have been weaker, he has had plenty of moments. His twin tons in Cape Town against Dale Steyn and company in 2014 should be recognised as one of Australia’s greatest away performances. He managed five fifties in England in 2015, though his 2019 disaster convinces people that he can’t play there. When Bangladesh pushed Australia hard in 2017 he made two of his best hundreds back to back. Another came in Dubai.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if Warner called time at his home Test in Sydney in a couple of weeks. The timing is good, he has invested so much in his Test career, and he is jaded with Cricket Australia’s administration. It equally wouldn’t be a surprise if his innate competitiveness can’t resist the challenge of another trip to India, another trip to England, one more chance to succeed there, one more chance to push for a series win that he has never experienced in either. It will be no surprise if selectors see it the same way.
When Ricky Ponting was struggling internationally, he would still go back to Tasmania and utterly smoke whoever he came up against. He was still levels better than the next best. Warner might be at a similar stage, and only if Will Pucovski was fit would there be a clear challenger. Not to mention the advantage that Warner has spent so much time in India, and will be completely sanguine about being there. Would Henry Hunt or Sam Whiteman survive a debut in Nagpur? Matthew Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft and Peter Handscomb have been in the cauldron, but are they more likely to be more useful than Warner’s experience and doggedness?
Warner is inherently an optimist. Even through that duck-studded 2019 Ashes, he kept believing that he would find a way to succeed. You could call it delusion, but it’s probably what has made him so enduring. He always thinks that he will find a way for things to get better, and most often he’s been good enough to make that come true. In the late sunlight after the Brisbane Test last week, while others were filled with angst about his second low score, Warner was sitting on the grass with a beaming smile, playing with his small daughters, jumping up to take them on running races or watch them do cartwheels. Whatever is coming next will come. He looked like he didn’t have a care in the world.