JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - It was not long ago that Australia wicketkeeper Tim Paine was considering giving up the game entirely. Now he is set to captain the team as they look to pick up the pieces following the ball-tampering scandal.
Paine was a surprise, and in some quarters unpopular, pick for the Ashes against England four months ago, yet a remarkable period of upheaval has seen him elevated to skipper for the final test against South Africa starting on Friday.
His rise may not be quite as spectacular as the fall of his predecessor Steve Smith, banned for a year for his part in the cheating scandal, but it is certainly a remarkable story of perseverance.
Now 33 and edging towards the end of his career, Paine can help engineer a victory against the odds that would level the series against South Africa and salvage some pride for Australian cricket after the team’s reputation was shredded.
Paine and disgraced ex-captain Smith made their test debuts together against Pakistan in the unlikely surroundings of Lord’s in 2010.
Yet while Smith’s career soared and he became the golden boy of Australian cricket, Paine has played just 12 tests in the years since, eight of those in the last four months.
Before his recall, he had considered walking away from the sport and taking up a job with cricket equipment manufacturer Kookaburra.
Paine, who has had seven surgeries on a finger injury that also threatened his career, was not even keeping wicket for state side Tasmania when he was recalled to the Australian squad.
That decision led former Australia spinner Stuart MacGill to label the selectors “morons”.
Yet his return to the team for the Ashes was followed by solid performances with the gloves and the bat. He has carried that form into the series with South Africa, averaging almost 40, while being virtually faultless behind the stumps.
He undoubtedly faces the biggest test of his career at The Wanderers as he seeks to lift morale in a squad that has been shattered by the loss of Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft following the scandal in Cape Town.
The way the side folded in one session to lose the last test by 322-runs showed they had mentally disintegrated after the three players admitted conspiring to scuff up the ball during the match.
They have managed just one training session ahead of the game in Johannesburg.
“It was extremely difficult but it’s no excuse for what happened in the last 45 minutes of play (at Newlands),” Paine said.
“We’re still the Australian cricket team and we’re expected to put up a better effort than we did. Certainly it was in some horrible circumstances and probably some circumstances we brought on ourselves.”
Australia have welcomed three new arrivals in openers Matthew Renshaw and Joe Burns, as well all-rounder Glenn Maxwell
Unscarred by what has happened on tour so far, they have a chance to stake a claim for a regular test spot.
“The one positive that will come is that some guys will get an opportunity to play for their country,” Paine said.
“The whole opportunity for us going forward is something that we can learn from and something we can try and control, how we are seen by the Australian public and become the team we want to become and they want us to be seen as.”
South Africa are likely to field the same side that were victorious in Cape Town as they seek a first home series victory against Australia since 1970, going into the final test with a 2-1 lead.
It will be a final international match for fast bowler Morne Morkel, 33, who announced his retirement from international cricket prior to the series.
His match-winning aggregate of 9-110 in the last test took his tally of wickets to 306 in 85 tests.
Reporting By Nick Said; Editing by Toby Davis