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Tim Paine: Will the Ashes be consumed by off-field scandal?

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Just when you thought it was England who have all the problems.

As Azeem Rafiq’s allegations shone a spotlight on the England dressing room, it seemed as if Joe Root’s outfit would be the only side going into the Ashes with serious and far-reaching off-field questions to answer.

Now, Tim Paine’s shock resignation as Test captain over a historical investigation into sexually explicit texts to a female colleague has plunged Australia into the biggest scandal since their last one.

Although the two ongoing crises have clear differences in nature and scale – one is a personal transgression, the other a matter of institutional prejudice – there is the real prospect of the Ashes being dominated by events away from the middle.

Paine was parachuted into the captaincy after the ball-tampering fiasco that caused the removal of Steve Smith, who was banned alongside David Warner and Cameron Bancroft.

All the while, the texts – sent around the time Paine was recalled to the Australia side in 2017 – and subsequent investigation – carried out in 2018, the year he became skipper – were in the background.

Even though the investigation cleared Paine of misconduct, the wicketkeeper still resigned in tears after learning the texts were set to be made public.

Though he has said he still wants to be part of the Australia team, there has to be some doubt over whether he will line up for the first Test against England in Brisbane on 8 December.

That Paine has jumped before he was potentially pushed is a moot point, but it now seems to be an error from Cricket Australia to entrust their post ball-tampering leadership to a man who ultimately had to step down amid a crisis of his own.

An accidental captain, on taking the reins Paine said Australia had to improve their “behaviour”.

Still, as detailed in the Amazon documentary The Test, it was Paine who restored their misguided machismo. He was caught sledging India players on stump microphones and went eye-to-eye with Virat Kohli during the 2018-19 series.

When India returned last year, Paine presided over Australia’s first Test defeat at the Gabba since 1988, one that handed the tourists a stunning series win.

He did manage to arrest an 18-year losing run in away Ashes series, drawing the 2019 series in England in 2-2.

However, that did include a bruising, Ben Stokes-inspired defeat from an almost impregnable position at Headingley, for which Paine’s tactics were questioned in front of the rest of the squad by coach Justin Langer, in another exchange captured by The Test.

More recently, Paine was vocal on the uncertainty some England players had over travelling to Australia.

“The Ashes are going ahead whether Joe Root is here or not,” he told his own radio show.

Paine’s record bat with the bat – he has not made a century in his 35 Tests – hung around his neck, even if his average of almost 32 since being recalled four years ago compares pretty well with other keepers in the same period.

In that sense, from a purely cricketing perspective, Paine’s resignation could lead to a stronger Australian side – he may find himself replaced by the stronger batting credentials of either Alex Carey or the England-born Josh Inglis.

If England are feeling some sort of relief that the off-field heat is now being shared by the Australians, the schadenfreude would be ill-judged.

There has still not been a response from the England team over Rafiq’s allegation that Gary Ballance used the term ‘Kevin’ to describe a person of colour during his four-year international career.

Eight of the Ashes squad, including captain Root, played for England alongside Ballance. At some point, it will have to be addressed whether any of those eight knew of the term and were complicit in its use.

The various controversies surrounding the opposing teams raises the possibility of an Ashes series creating headlines as much for what happens off the field as on.

England’s last tour down under four years ago is remembered without fondness for Stokes’ altercation in Bristol beforehand, the ‘headbutt’ from Jonny Bairstow on Bancroft and Ben Duckett pouring a drink over James Anderson – and that is before you consider they were hammered 4-0.

Now, cricket’s oldest rivals are finding they are not only united by history, but also a need to clean up their act. In England’s case, the entire cricketing culture has been called into question.

Events 10,000 miles apart have exposed aspects of professional sport that are still lagging behind the rest of society.

There is an omerta around the cult of the dressing room – ‘what goes on in the dressing room, stays in the dressing room’.

However, these are also places of work so must strive to uphold the standards expected of the rest of us when we go to the office, factory or shop. There is an extra burden of responsibility when it comes to representing a country and all of the people in it.

There are still 19 days until the Ashes begin. What more could engulf these two sides in that time?

To borrow his own phrase, the Ashes are going ahead, whether Tim Paine is there or not.

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