“Mate, I want you to open tomorrow. I know you haven’t done it but I think you are ready. I just want you to be yourself, back your instincts and take the game on. Don’t worry about any selection issues.”
It was with those words in 2009 that Dominic Thornely, who was New South Wales’ captain then, had turned around the career of David Warner. Warner is now set to play his 100th ODI on Thursday, and he would have to thank Thornely for the support at the right time. The NSW selectors weren’t keen on young Warner opening; they saw him more useful lower down the order. Thornely was adamant though.
“We at NSW had the left-handers opening as part of our game plan,” Thornely told The Indian Express. “Simon Katich was with the Australian team, so was Phil Jaques, and I thought Warner was exactly the person I wanted first up. He had an attacking game, and was good against fast bowlers. He wasn’t so good against spin at that stage in his career, and I thought he would be better off with the new ball.”
Eventually, Thornely and the selectors agreed to disagree. “But they said that as a captain it would be my choice who I send out to open and that was that.”
Thornely had been impressed with the way Warner was shaping up in the NSW team. Thornely knew that Warner had come from a modest background – he used to live in a commission-estate house that the government provides for low-income families. “I knew he had had a tough background, hard life, and I think it actually helped him,” Thornely says. “I think it made him appreciate the opportunities cricket was providing him. He used to be very respectful to the captains and really wanted to blend in with the team. He realised that cricket could be his way out, I think.”
Warner has talked about his childhood in that neighbourhood. Once, he and his family even found a dead body right in front of house and the police had to be called. When he was 14, he started packing boxes in a supermarket, and would sometimes work till 3 am for 12$ per-hour shifts. Wake up, go to school. Play some cricket, back to work. So when Thornely walked up to him and offered the role as opener, Warner jumped at the opportunity. “He was very excited, I could tell. I don’t know whether he had any self-doubts but to me, outwardly, he looked really happy. Almost as if he was waiting for this chance.” Warner blasted a big hundred in his second game as opener, followed it up with a brutal 97 a few days later, and that was that.
Warner ran into disciplinary problems, like punching Joe Root among other incidents, and was even dropped from the ODI team in 2013 after a run drought. He has credited his wife Candice, an athlete, for turning around his life, and re-instilling in him the hunger and desire needed at the top level.
Interestingly, his wife too had dealt with problems of her own in her career. She was badly dissed in the public and in media for her off-the-field activities; someone once shoved a phone in a pub toilet where she was holed up with a rugby league star Sonny Bill Williams, and the images went viral. Much public shaming resulted – she was called a “floozy”, a “man-eater” and unable to handle it, she drove towards a bay area, not far from Warner’s house incidentally, a place that has seen quite a few suicides. She ignored the frantic calls of her mother, and eventually answered a call from her brother. “Please come and get me,” and her brother later recalled she was a shivering nervous wreck when he arrived at the spot. She rebuilt her life and sporting career, and has gone to be a calming influence on Warner.
Thornely recalls a highly-energetic kid whose spirit was very infectious in the team. “He would train really hard, he wanted to win, the boys loved his energy, it rubbed off on them, and as a captain, I loved having him in my team.
“People have said how Dean jones was 10 years ahead of his time and I think Warner was 10 years ahead of his time when he came and it took a while for the system to appreciate and catch up with him. He had a fair awareness about the type of cricket he wanted to play. Once he got a chance to play first-class cricket, he hasn’t looked back. He has been amazing with Australia.”