Adam Collins talks to David Warner about his transformation from a journalist-baiting, Joe-Root-punching brat into a happy-at-home Australian Test vice-captain.
He was so loud. David Warner, the bloke who went on Twitter with a handful of beers under his belt to take on two journalists. Who, after another handful of beers, took a swing at Joe Root and was suspended during an Ashes tour. Who racked up fines for nasty conduct without a care. A freakish talent, a compelling success story, but with this unpleasant, uninviting edge.
When picked for Australia from nowhere in January 2009, Warner was wild of bat, but utterly joyous. Four years on he was wild of tongue, but in a self-declared ‘bad place’. Two years ago he was disillusioned: a senior player, but increasingly an outsider. Off the drink, but distant. After the tragic death of Phillip Hughes he witnessed just months before, he had the right to be.
The 2015 Ashes tour proved the end of an era for Australia with a slew of retirements. When it was done, he found himself named vice-captain. “A hamstring twinge away from the Test captaincy,” I sniped at the time. Whatever the weight of the office, the idea of Warner leading Australia still seemed fanciful.
“We all mature as people,” Warner tells AOC.
But do we? If you’re at the peak of your powers in a cashed-up job and revered for it by millions around the world, where very few have the courage to tell you that you are wrong? Many haven’t, and life played out just fine – just ask Shane Warne.
For Warner though, fuelled by the steadying influence of a committed wife and responsibility of fatherhood, he twigged that something was amiss.
In Sri Lanka last year, Australia were whitewashed 3-0. Happier than ever at home, by now with a second daughter, Warner sensed he was missing a trick. “I was not in a great space when I came back,” he explains. “I was really annoyed with my game, I was down on myself and telling myself I had lost it.”
By any metric that’s a stretch – he dominated the white-ball rubbers that followed – but he fixated on his poor returns from the Tests. Warner’s wife, Candice, suggested he spend some time with John Novak, a mind coach she worked with in her career as a professional ironwoman. It was during time spent with Novak that the penny dropped.
“I sat down with him for a four-hour stint, and after that, I’ve spoken to him pretty much every day,” Warner says. Novak introduced him to the practice of mindfulness to liberate his mind of noise that scattered too much of his concentration. “It’s about limiting external distractions and making sure I’m not wasting my energy on little things.”
Warner has been a convert to the meditative process, using the buddhify mindfulness app for his regular guided practice. “It puts me in the zone and my mind at ease,” he says. He now repeats key messages before batting, alongside cues to help him switch off between deliveries.
Warner being Warner, he took to the methods in an evangelical burst. “I basically preached for a good month,” he laughs. “Whenever I was at training and someone said something negative I would reiterate three positive things about them. People were like, ‘Who is this bloke? What the hell is going on here?’”
It clicked in my mind that I can play in all three formats trying to caress the ball through the gaps
The “over-preaching”, as he puts it, led to Australia coach Darren Lehmann dubbing him ‘The Reverend’, a nickname that stuck. Warner explains it was all part of his development. “If I wanted to adopt this new mentality, I had to live it myself. And that’s where I am now; I always try and see the positive in every situation. I have found balance.”
This extends to his previously confrontational nature as a player and person. It has been said of Warner that he is never wrong. Now, contrition comes more easily.
“That has changed, which I am grateful for,” he says. “It becomes a negative impact, not just on you, but people won’t want to talk to you because it is my way or the highway. You don’t want to be that type of person. Now I can have a proper conversation with someone and understand what they are talking about rather than having an argument.”
Earlier seeds were sown when he quit drinking in 2015. That was, at the time, motivated by extending his playing career, meshed with the discipline his wife displayed in her own sporting career. She never understood the not-so-tacit alcohol culture in cricket. It is instructive that Warner says that he would have a beer because he “didn’t understand how to sit around and chew the fat” without one. That’s plainly no longer the case.
“My life balance is unbelievable and I have my wife to thank for that. I am not saying I won’t have a glass of wine here and there when the time is right. But, other than that, I can’t see myself going back. I know how I feel now.”
The preconditions for Warner the batsman’s evolution is borne of similar principles. Trent Woodhill, who self-identifies as an “organic” batting coach, has been a confidant since his youth. A more compassionate character than most on the circuit, the direction he supplies Warner has, the pupil says, a “massive role” in how he approaches his job. Specifically, how to quieten pervasive thoughts at vital moments.
“When Trent talks about having a clear mind it is about your process,” Warner explains. “Knowing that if it is full you are going to play straight down the ground, or if it is short, my hips know that I pull it – not second-guessing yourself. If you second-guess yourself that’s when you start nicking or half-committing, which I have done in the past. He reassures you with pinpoint accuracy, and knows me so well he can switch my brain on straight away.”
Wondering whether Warner’s brain is switched on can readily evolve into a national pastime. Each time he is dismissed in an unflattering way, the response remains fierce from fans who question whether he has the application to match his immense talent. That ignores the fact he is one of only three players to record twin tons in three separate Tests, or a host of other standout statistical achievements. Breaking the link to the slayer who was brought in to play T20s for Australia before he had played a first-class game has never been easy.
But just as Warner’s outlook on life has blossomed, so too has the rhythm of his batting. On that famous debut he smashed 89 from 43 balls against South Africa at the MCG. Three years on, in his first summer as a Test player, he hit a century in a session against India. Both knocks were defined by many long bombs over long-on. Brilliant, but unsustainable. Warner’s oscillating output reflected this as he bounced between the game’s formats.
I always try and see the positive in every situation. I have found balance.
His second Test century in a session, at Sydney in January, capped a period of work built on simplifying his approach. Inspired by a conversation with former Australian batting coach Michael Di Venuto, Warner tailored a game that was suitable for all forms, punctuated now by timing and placement, not brutality.
“It clicked in my mind that I can play in all three formats trying to caress the ball through the gaps,” Warner recalls. “I found it diffcult going from Tests to T20. I’d come back and first or second over I was trying to play all these cowboy shots. I had to say to myself, ‘Hang on, you have worked hard to start playing the game properly and then you have one T20 game and you’ve lost it.’ That’s where I said to myself, ‘Let’s work out how you can play the same way in all formats.’”
It was in ODI cricket where the tweak earned most obvious gains, Warner tallying an astonishing nine centuries in his past 28 matches. “When I started, my strength was snapping my hips and pulling after picking up the length but I wasn’t as strong through the off-side,” he says. “The freedom that taught me to play more [through the off-side] is what now allows me to time the ball through backward point.
“That’s where I have become a lot more mature and smarter, to be a senior player in the team and the leader. You become more game-aware and understand the value of your position, and not to get too far ahead of yourself and swing after everything.”
Having solidified his game, Australia’s tour of India earlier this year was earmarked by his captain Steve Smith as one where Warner needed to excel. It didn’t go to plan, with Warner only passing 50 once in four Tests, but in keeping with his new mindset his response is to be philosophical and accepting rather than angry and anxious.
“There are always going to be times when someone misses out and I look at it as one of those times when it wasn’t my series,” Warner says. “I simplify it. I don’t put too much burden on myself now. In Sri Lanka I was just nailing myself. I was nowhere. And that didn’t help me. You can’t put that much pressure on yourself and you can’t dwell on it too much. In four years I get another crack at it, if I am still playing well.”
Within days he was flung into the IPL, where the reversal of fortunes was profound. Warner was the tournament’s leading run-scorer, 143 ahead of his nearest rival, leading Sunrisers Hyderabad out of the group stage.
Next stop was the Champions Trophy, where Australia were undone by the weather, and a Stokes masterclass, before they could get going. It was here that it all began four years ago with that swing at Root. Later, stories differed as to the genesis of the incident, Warner claiming it was in response to Root mocking Hashim Amla’s beard. It was a claim Root denied, and Warner’s integrity was questioned. When reflecting on the saga now, it’s palpable how far he has departed from that place and time as the tournament rolls around again.
“What happened that night happened,” he says, pointing out that it was another motivation towards leaving alcohol behind. “But we are trying to be role models. He is captaining his country, which is fantastic – he’s a fantastic player.”
A curious pick as vice-captain not even two years ago, it turns out Warner is an effective skipper. Whether that’s causation or correlation with the lifestyle changes he has made, the results speak for themselves. Warner won the IPL in his second season in charge of Hyderabad. In Sri Lanka, standing in for Smith for the final five fixtures of a tour that had gone badly off-piste, the team bounced back and won them all.
“I have always been that kind of person,” he says, explaining why captaincy agrees with him. “I’ve always been busy, so when I don’t have downtime I am more effective. And that’s how I see myself on the field when I have the opportunity to lead.”
Whether that means he could be the national captain one day, should Smith want to return to the ranks in future, he’d rather not speculate. “It depends how Steve wants go about it,” he says diplomatically, but it’s clear he has the field marshal’s baton close to hand if ever called upon.
Good reputations, they’re hard won and easily lost. Yet the reverse is true for those who come unstuck. While redemption stories are appealing, they’re often viewed through a cynical filter. Can a person really change that much?
If 2017 constitutes the halfway mark of his career, Warner is determined to spend the rest of it proving that he is considerably more than the earlier edition.
“I want to be the person who anyone can come to,” he says. “You have got to understand who you are. You are playing the game that you love; you want to have more friends than enemies. Where I have come in the last 12-18 months I have been able to actually speak to people and change their opinions and be a nicer person and show them what I really am. I am better for it and I play better cricket because of it.”
From loud, crude and cringeworthy, to kind, considered and mindful. No longer the brat, this is David Warner the man.