Warner tames the beast within (almost)

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It’s a goddamn beast of a shot. Dale Steyn is steaming in; he’s already been flicked for six. Steyn doesn’t like batsmen when they’re playing and missing, who knows what vicious thoughts are going through his brain after the six. He goes fast at the body, but the body moves back, and slaps – more like a horse whip really – a delivery at over 90mph, the kind that breaks lesser men’s jaws, 22 rows back over the MCG boundary.

David Warner is wearing this ridiculous, tight-sleeved T20 top. A few minutes earlier, no one knew who the hell he was; before the innings ends he’ll be the next big thing in cricket.

There is probably a six of Warner’s that you remember. Because it was so brutal, audacious, out of place, fierce, easy, or just went so damn far. When you hit a lot of sixes, that’s what you’re remembered for.

The Steyn slap got the world’s attention. But there have been a lot since. Switch-hits that have cleared cover by further than some batsmen can clear midwicket batting with their usual stance. Pull shots that are more like flicks, which almost seem eloquent compared to his regular shots. Down on one knee against fast-medium bowlers and peppering crowd members around the world. Or the old-fashioned heave over cow corner that, with his compact frame, somehow looks less agricultural and more industrial.

David Warner sees the ball, David Warner smashes the ball. Warner, smash.

In this Test, Warner made 189 runs, faced 378 balls. It was the longest he’s ever batted in a Test; he hit one six.

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When Vinay Kumar came into the attack at the WACA to bowl his first ever Test ball, Ed Cowan and Warner met mid-pitch. Over ten years earlier Cowan had thrown balls to the younger Warner in the Easts nets. They knew each other well. They decided to take a look at Vinay, see what he was doing, and then take it from there.

Cowan and Warner were from the same area of Sydney, both left-handed openers. That’s where the similarities ended. Warner was from a council estate, had been rushed into the Australian set up after a bunch of big List A innings, and his first game was almost pronounced a national holiday. His 12th first-class game was a Test. Cowan, meanwhile, went to one of Sydney’s elite schools, started his first-class career with Oxford UCCE in England, had to leave NSW for better opportunities, and was on the verge of retirement, before a bunch of hundreds got him a surprise Test call-up.

In some ways, neither of them were supposed to be there, but where we knew what kind of opener Cowan might be, turgid and cheeky, we had no idea with Warner. In his second Test, Australia had to chase 241 on a green top in Hobart: he made 123 not out, no one else passed 23, and Australia still lost.

But this match at the WACA was only his fifth Test (and 16th first-class match). When Vinay came on, Warner was already 20 off 16, and was in verbal battles with half the India team. Warner had faced Vinay before, three times in the IPL; he’d scored five runs from him. Here, at the WACA, Warner launched the third ball he faced from Vinay into the members.

Cowan couldn’t believe it and went down the pitch; Warner shrugged and said, “It was in my wheelhouse.” Warner hit Vinay for six in the 20th over of the innings as well. As the ball left the bat, Cowan (who was on 38) started celebrating: Warner’s hundred came from 69 balls.

It would have been easy for Warner to get sucked into the hype that surrounded that innings. For him to waltz around the world trying to beat the record for the fastest hundred ever made, a cricketing John Daly. To hit sixes off the first ball, to become a one-trick pony. But Warner has never scored a quicker hundred, and really, never come that close to it.

Instead of becoming a six-hitting circuit sideshow, he became a Test-match batsman.

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David Warner is the best scorer of threes in the world. Since his career began, he’s taken 30 more than Alastair Cook, who’s in second place. People think of Warner as an attacking batsman – cavalier, willing to hit the ball in the air – but in reality, the place he’s most aggressive is usually his running between wickets.

Warner’s boundary percentage is 53.1%. Of all other openers in world cricket during his career, it is 51.7%. Warner scores barely more boundaries in his runs than the average, and far less than some batsmen. He still hits a lot of boundaries (he leads world cricket in that category too), and no modern top-order batsman (min 1200 balls) scores them more often than his rate of one every 10.4 balls.

“Warner is seen by detractors as someone who makes second-innings runs when Australia are already in front but really he averages about the same in both innings, and has made more hundreds in the first”

But the real truth of how Warner scores isn’t the boundaries, or even all those hard-run threes, it’s that he’s always scoring. Warner scores off almost 40% more balls than the average opener. Only one modern opener scores off more balls: Virender Sehwag (presumably with far fewer threes). Even if you look at all batsmen in Warner’s era, he is seventh in scoring off the most balls.

The way to highlight the difference between Warner and every other opener in world cricket is by the fact that all openers in his time face, on average, 66 balls per innings, and Warner’s figure is 63. But the other openers average 35, and Warner averages 48. He faces fewer balls and scores a lot more.

Warner’s not like any opening batsman before him, and there are no others like him around now. He’s a new kind of cricketer, the boundaries of a T20 player, the running of an ODI player, and the Test runs of a potential great.

The most significant thing holding him back as a great right now is his record away from home, where he averages 38.25. But at home, he averages 59.70. During the first three Ashes Tests, he hasn’t been that kind of Warner.

Until the start of this match, when hometown Warner showed up. It was as if there was some random guy at the other end, a bunch of faceless bowlers, and he trotted his way to another hundred. He played the pull-shot flick, punished wide balls, got rid of Moeen Ali from the attack and, for a short time, it looked like he was going to make a hundred before lunch. Even with a slowdown in the 90s, Warner made his hundred from 130 balls. When he was out he’d made 76% of Australia’s runs.

The second innings wasn’t anything like that. Warner’s seen by some detractors as someone who makes second-innings runs when Australia are already massively in front but, the truth is, he averages about the same in both innings, and has made far more hundreds in the first. In this Test, Australia were battling for the draw, and Warner had previously only played in 10 draws.

There is nothing in his reputation that would suggest he would be good at blocking out a draw on a slow wicket. Even when he makes runs, he doesn’t bat time. He’s not known for his patience or stamina. There was no form line to suggest he might be able to do it.

Of the 227 balls he faced second time around, he hit three in the air, according to CricViz. Usually he hits one in 25 in the air. On average, Warner leaves 9.5% of the balls he faces; in this innings, it was 19.8%. He only hit eight boundaries, one every 28 balls. And there were no sixes.

It wasn’t even a straightforward innings. There were rain breaks, an overnight rest, the impending doom of a collapse after his wicket, and England were priming the trap with all the part-time spinners they could muster. And yet Warner persisted, with a strike rate of 37.88, half his career average, for 305 minutes.

He didn’t guarantee the draw but, without him, it probably wouldn’t have happened unless Steven Smith had taken to batting from both ends for most of the last day.

But just before lunch it ended.

The muscles have no capacity for memories, but the brain remembers often-used motor skills, so that over time, we can do certain things like walk, drive, drink, without conscious effort.

Despite our memories of Warner, he’s not just a batsman who bashes the ball; his game is far more refined, nuanced and interesting. His two innings in Bangladesh earlier in the year, as well as this one, show that he’s been working very hard to be an even better batsman.

But when Joe Root floats up a wide one, Warner’s muscle memory takes over, and the ball just had to go. He was salivating so much he probably didn’t even see the ball land in the footmark. Warner got down on one knee and tried to hit the ball very hard. Perhaps over long-on, maybe straight – the actual destination’s not essential, just a long way. It did go a long way, straight into the air.

There’s been much talk about how Warner’s grown as a man since he was married. And he’s trying to do the same with his game. To become the man that Australian cricket needs in this a poor batting era. Here he showed again how far he has come.

But Root’s floater proved that while you can tame a beast, it’s still a beast.

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