As Peter Handscomb made his Test debut in 2016, Chris Rogers told a story about his former teammate on radio. Five years earlier, the pair were batting together in a productive stand through piercing heat at the Gabba during the 20-year-old’s first innings for Victoria. When coming off the field for tea, the newcomer spent the entirety of the interval meditating.
It was a short but indicative tale, it hinted that Handscomb had more to him than the average bear. Arriving on the international scene after Australia had lost five Tests on the trot, his first four outings in the baggy green ticked every box, striking two centuries and two further half-centuries. By the end of the summer, he was already touted as a future skipper.
But that was then. This week, now 29, Handscomb learned of a new setback in what has turned into a string of them in recent times: Middlesex confirmed that he won’t be returning to England this summer to play in their truncated county season.
In reality, Handscomb knew for months that Covid-19 would likely deny him the chance to take up his commission as captain in 2020, a job he signed on to do for the next two years – as Rogers did from 2012 till 2014. Instead, he has now agreed to a new deal to lead the club in both 2021 and 2022.
But talking with The Guardian about the circumstances – taking stock more broadly about his lot at this midway stage of his professional career – Handscomb isn’t angry or frustrated. He understands the financial situation, one which resulted in Middlesex players taking voluntary pay cuts. Moreover, he has adopted a decidedly calm approach to his medium-term Australian prospects while taking full advantage of a proper break from the game.
“It has been nice to be able to reflect on pretty hectic times over the four years,” he explains. “But to actually be able to sit down and relax for a few months, albeit in isolation, there is a silver lining – you can recharge. The expectation is that if you’ve got cricket there, you play.
“With so much cricket, if you have got a break for a month or two you think ‘all right, what competition is going on in the world?’ It can be hard to have that downtime and have that time to just reflect on what you want to do in the future and how you want to go about it.”
When Handscomb’s initial stint in the Test team came to an end a year after his debut, seemingly every warm-blooded Australian had a view on his backfoot trigger movement. “I was getting frustrated and listening to too much,” he recalls, “taking all of that noise in and not being able to shut it off.”
A brief recall came at the end of that marathon summer after the Sandpaper trio were banned, but he was omitted just as quickly. The stop/start pattern that continued throughout 2019, in then out of the Test and ODI sides – in the case of the latter, left out of the World Cup squad after a defining maiden limited-overs century in Mohali.
“This is where that mindfulness comes in,” he says of riding that rollercoaster. “Making sure I step back and understand that I am not a cricketer first. It is about being a good person and helping those around you and then cricket is a way I can do that. So, I’ve sort of just changed my outlook on cricket a little bit, which hopefully helps relax me coming into this season.”
It’s a theme Handscomb returns to a number of times: cricket is of great importance to him – it is his job and his passion – but the game doesn’t alone define him as a person.
“We’ve been forced to step away and show that we are not just cricketers,” he says. “We are people and there are other things going on in our lives. You talk to those guys who have had kids or had big life-changing things happen to them and straight away the first thing they say is that they don’t know why they stressed so much about little things in cricket. They have a different outlook. Yes, cricket is there but the journey of life is long and there will be a lot more.
He may have been short of runs of late, but armed with this perspective he has never lost faith in his ability. “I believe I will be back and playing for Australia,” he says. “I honestly think I’ll get the runs to get back into the team doing what I do. My game has changed from when I first played to now, and that’s fine. But that self-belief is more important. It can be a crazy game, so the stronger you can be in your mind, the better you will be out in the middle.”
For inspiration within the dressing room in sticking with a technique constantly scrutinised and criticised there is Steve Smith. “He backs himself. He’s just gone ‘this is going to work and I’m going to do it’ and that right there made him head and shoulders above any other batter in the world because he’s taken out all doubt about himself. If the way I play isn’t good enough to make it in the long run, at least I backed it and it was my decisions.”
Sure, the immediate path back to the top is blocked by the improved output of Australia’s top six – but there remains something about Pete Handscomb. And as his friend and mentor Rogers demonstrated through his own career, he continues to have plenty of time on his side.