David Warner told us this would happen. He told us on Christmas Eve. He told us he was in a good headspace. He told us he had just been out of luck and out of runs, not out of form or in decline.
He told us he would play like his old self. He told us the South Africa attack holds no fears because he faces the best attack in the world in the nets every day. He told us he was still that kid from the housing commission in Matraville in Sydney, who knew no other way than to fight when his back was against the wall.
He told us with his bat. He told us with his celebration. David Warner is back. And it was like he never went away.
Almost all his 25 Test centuries have been special in one way or another. But this one felt extra special, and it felt like one of his best. He hadn’t made a Test century for three years, and it was burning inside of him. The anguish on his face when he fell for back-to-back scores of 94 and 95 in last year’s Ashes told us that.
He hadn’t scored a Test half-century since March, a drought of five Tests and ten innings. But we should have known. He had once averaged 9.50 in ten innings across five Tests and then made consecutive scores of 154 and 335 not out.
But there were suggestions that perhaps this run of outs wasn’t just Stuart Broad from around the wicket in swinging conditions. His mind was not in the same place. He admitted as much. The leadership ban appeal had taken its toll on him and his family.
His preparation for the first Test of the summer in Perth was bizarre. The day before the game he was batting in the nets in sunglasses. He was searching for the ball rather than letting it come.
He told us his two chop-ons against West Indies were bad luck. That his nicked drive in Adelaide was from a good position. But they looked like a man searching for runs, searching for the player he used to be. Then came Brisbane. It was a brute of a ball from Kagiso Rabada. It could have got anyone out. But the way he fended at it, and took both eyes off it, looked different from the Warner of old.
That’s what made this innings so impressive. He looked sharp from the first ball yesterday. His footwork was precise. His bat swing was compact. His strike points were under his eyes. His decision-making was razor sharp. He had the old Warner presence at the crease. The presence his former partners Chris Rogers, Joe Burns and Matt Renshaw spoke about in the lead-up.
Rabada bounced Warner and he didn’t fend. He swivelled and smacked it off his nose behind square to get off the mark with a boundary. Rabada tried again and Warner nailed him again through square. Rabada pitched up and Warner check-drove him through the covers. Just a push from a perfect position. No full-blooded flourish away from his body that had thrice brought about his downfall against West Indies. It was controlled, beautifully timed, and it didn’t even reach the rope. But his supreme speed and fitness carried him to an all-run four. The first of three in the innings.
Luck was on his side. He sensed it too and was determined to make it count.
A slash off Anrich Nortje flew over the slips. On day two, he edged two balls between slip and gully for fours. A swerving inswinger from Lungi Ngidi caught his inside edge and flew past leg stump for four. Nortje glanced his helmet and it went for four leg-byes.
But all the edges bar one came from soft hands, and they were just reward for better judgment in this innings than he had shown this summer.
The flatter pitch was useful, too. The torrid heat of a 37-degree Melbourne day with the fan-forced oven-like northerly wind worked in his favour. He is one of the fittest batters in the modern game, and the quality of his physical preparation meant he could cash in better than others with his frantic running between the wickets. Though he potentially contributed to the downfall of Marnus Labuschagne due to some overzealousness. But the benefits perhaps outweighed the cost given the number of all-run threes and fours he was able to reap in the blazing heat.
His final test came just after lunch with that elusive century within touching distance. Nortje delivered a spell every bit as fierce and fiery as the Melbourne sun. Nearly every delivery for four overs was above 150kph. Warner dug out a 151kph inswinging yorker. He swayed inside a 152kph bouncer that flew over Kyle Verreynne’s head for four byes. He defended a 155kph rocket on middle stump. Nortje kept coming forward faster and faster and Warner never took a backward step. He was pinged on the index finger, but he still pushed for a second run to try to get back on strike.
After surviving that, he got a gift he deserved from Rabada down the leg side and pulled it fine to spark an elongated and emotional celebration. There was the trademark leap and the kiss to his family. But he also directed his attention to the area that houses the media and potentially others who have been in his sights.
That Steven Smith was there with him to celebrate was serendipitous. Smith and Warner will forever be linked for a number of reasons. Oddly, despite being the two best Australian batters of their generation, the two had never shared a double-century stand in Test cricket. Former team-mates have often mused about an unspoken rivalry between the two during their batting pomp between 2013 and 2017, when a century by one would inspire a century in response from the other. But they had never really succeeded in unison.
They carved South Africa apart in a 239-run stand to bring them to their knees. Warner tore into Keshav Maharaj to race towards 200, trying to beat the onset of cramp and heat exhaustion. He got there with an edge to third man. He dropped to his knees to celebrate and then attempted another leap in celebration before his body completely seized up and he was forced to retire hurt on 200 not out.
It wasn’t bad luck, or Rabada, or Nortje, or South Africa, or even the heat that finally got him. It was one last “I told you so” that he exited with. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.