David Warner (C) top-scored with 89 against Afghanistan, but it was a different kind of innings for the Australian. (AP: Matt Dunham)
A lot can change in four years.
Sport is measured in quadrennials for the really big stuff: Olympics, World Cups, the New Hampshire primary. The gap is just small enough to connect the events, but large enough to make them feel distant.
David Warner’s life has changed vastly in that gap. During the previous Cricket World Cup, his first daughter was a few months old. He was weeks away from his wedding, and a couple of months from announcing an intention to quit being a team attack dog.
It all seems impossibly long ago.
In Bristol on Saturday, Warner was back in a World Cup campaign, opening Australia’s defence of that 2015 title with an unbeaten 89 that won him man of the match against Afghanistan.
ICC tweet: @davidwarner (89* from 114) and @AaronFinch5 (66 from 49) were rarely troubled, helping the defending champions to an opening victory. Watch their best shots here! #CWC19
After a year banned from the team, his return couldn’t have gone much better. But it also felt extremely strange.
We’ve heard a lot about the new Australian cricket team, the new culture, and how a new David Warner might fit in with it all. The man was supposed to be different, but that didn’t imply the batsman would be so different as well.
As his opening partner Aaron Finch blasted off, Warner kept quiet. No drama there, one partner often plays second fiddle.
But as the innings wore on, Warner never hit his stride. He poked. He grafted. He miscued. He defended, far more than we’re accustomed to. He often looked uncomfortable, and never looked in a hurry.
His first boundary came from a free hit following a no-ball. His second came from an edge that was missed at slip. The handful thereafter mostly came from cheap options: misfields on the rope, nudges to fine leg.
At one stage he was 20 off 40 balls, then moved to his slowest half-century. Even by the end, there was no effort to gobble a few boundaries and give himself a chance of a hundred. He just worked the gaps.
Last time Australia played Afghanistan was in the previous World Cup. The home side made over 400 in Perth, Warner leading with 178 from 133 balls.
It was one of those days where he destroyed everything, walloping one six so far into the stands that it took out a kid whose dad was distracted by a phone call. The kid went home with a bruised arm, a good story and a pair of batting gloves.
On that day, Warner scored the most runs he’s ever made from his first 100 balls. Four years later, against the same opponent, Warner has just returned the lowest score he’s ever made from 100 balls.
His lack of intensity reinforced the impression of Australia’s batting being old fashioned, both in selection and approach.
Already in this World Cup, West Indies threw down a gauntlet after bowling out Pakistan, mowing down 108 in 13 overs, before New Zealand nearly answered that challenge by thrashing past Sri Lanka’s 136 in 16 overs.
But Australia had no interest in following suit. You can argue the value of getting miles into the legs of important players, but it could equally be a regret if net run rate decides a semi-final spot. One can’t rely on getting low scores to chase whenever it suits.
Afghanistan bowler Hamid Hassan was a much tougher proposition for batsmen than four years ago. (AP: Matt Dunham)
Just as life has changed for Warner, so has it for Hamid Hassan. The fast bowler became the poster boy for Afghanistan’s emergence into public consciousness in 2015, with his exuberant celebrations, headbands and face paint.
He was batting with fellow tailender Shapoor Zadran when Afghanistan won a World Cup match for the first time.
But from 2016, Hamid didn’t play for three years. He was plagued with injuries, popping up on the odd commentary stint and looking every inch the former player.
Suddenly, just before the 2019 sequel, he was back on the scene, making himself available. His selection seemed like an indulgence, a talisman pick to boost morale more than contribute on the field.
And when he made the XI we assumed that he would do so as a senior statesman, reinventing his art, compensating for lost pace, or reliving past achievements in paler imitation.
Instead, the speed gun topped 90 miles per hour. Aaron Finch was nearly done in, shaping for a back-foot force but only whooshing at the line as the ball zipped through him.
Hamid had gone back to the well, one more time. And he had drawn deep.
In 2015, his first over to Warner was smashed for 20. In 2019, it was a maiden. The bowler troubled the batsman, who hunkered down. Eventually, Hamid drew the aforementioned edge, but first slip was too slow to move.
These states may revert closer to the familiar. One assumes that Warner will grow more bullish, and Hamid’s body could rebel at any time.
But the new incarnations are real. Everything has changed in the interim, even if everything will end up looking the same.
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