In the ficklest format that is 20-over cricket, no one is ever really gone, and no one is ever really back. The best scoring streak can be interrupted by a miscue, the longest struggle can give way to a day when a player makes good contact with a few big swings. Still, those running Australia’s team would have watched with some relief as David Warner ran up 65 runs from 42 balls in Dubai on Thursday night, the central contribution to chasing Sri Lanka’s 154 and giving Australia two wins from two at the T20 World Cup. For a few days, Warner can enjoy the feeling that perhaps he is back indeed.
In a weird couple of years for almost everyone on the planet, it has been a weird couple of cricketing years for Warner. For almost a decade he had played relentlessly: across formats from his T20 debut in 2009 until his 12-month suspension in March 2018, nobody played more matches or scored more runs across for Australia. In the same span he played all nine editions of the Indian Premier League, a couple in the Big Bash, Sheffield Shield fixtures in eight seasons, four 50-over state cups, five Australia A matches, two Champions Leagues, and a couple of T20 tournaments in England and New Zealand.
His ball-tampering ban brought a sudden unfamiliar quiet. His return in 2019 saw a hectic nine months containing a prodigious 50-over World Cup, a disastrous Ashes tour, then a run glut across formats in the home summer headlined by his first Test triple-century and another Allan Border Medal for player of the year. Then came the pandemic, and another enforced period of fallowness, exacerbated by a tendon injury during the 2021-21 season. Since Australia began closing borders in March 2020, Warner’s appearances for Australia consist of 11 limited-overs matches in England and South Africa, plus two one-dayers and two Tests at home.
He did manage two more IPL seasons across three tranches, which those paying his Cricket Australia contract were happy to accept as a way of fine-tuning him for two T20 World Cups in quick succession. Instead, though, the tournament tuned him out. In 2020 he returned a chunk of runs, but a player known for blazing starts while opening the batting had his strike rate and average drop substantially. His boundary count was down, both fours and sixes. He produced some good innings but struggled with slow starts. He entered 2021’s tournament as the fourth-highest scorer in IPL history, and ended it dropped by his Hyderabad side, after a sequence of three low scores and – more damaging in T20 cricket – three substantial scores that barely reached a run per ball.
With the IPL the only available proxy for national form, this and a couple of low scores in World Cup warm-up matches were all that observers had to go on. The spectre appeared that one of his country’s two most reliable scorers in any format might be in trouble, starting to creak in the knees, dim in the eye, or wane in motivation as he neared his 35th birthday. That spectre was especially fearsome to Australians thinking about December’s upcoming Ashes, recalling how Warner was haunted by Stuart Broad’s bowling in England in 2019.
It is worth recalling his previous meetings with Broad in southern conditions: 10 matches racking up three centuries and five fifties at an average north of 60. The contest is a very different prospect in Australia, where the red Kookaburra laughs most at English bowlers. It will probably be much easier to dismiss Warner before the series than to dismiss him during it. But without recent reminders to the contrary, it’s easy for worry to start. And the longer a worrying trend continues, the more chance it might pervade even the weatherproof soul of Warner.
So, a score of 65 against Sri Lanka might not mean a lot on its own, especially one that started with a gloved short ball lobbing so gently into the air that the umpire’s raised finger had to be hastily retracted when the wicketkeeper inexplicably grassed the catch. But the way Warner climbed into every short ball thereafter, the way he used the switch-hit over short third, the way he walked into a cover drive on the up, or scorched a straight one past a bowler who never saw it, will at least make him feel that life is a little more rosy. As he heads deeper into the tournament, it provides a chance for these two strange years to get better from here.