It was a muggy November evening when nine-year-old Sam Williams and his mother Marita made a 10-hour bus ride from their hometown Ballarat in Victoria to Coogee Oval in Sydney to live his dream of meeting his idol, David Warner. The latter was playing a club match against local rivals Sutherland and had invited his young fan for the match after his mother's touching email to the club requesting her son to meet his hero.
Sam's too young to understand the gravity or repercussion of the sandpaper-gate scandal, but he wouldn't let anyone, not even his father, belittle Warner. "Whenever one of the elders blasted Warner, he would come to his defence, saying that 'my hero is not bad, he's my superman'," Marita recollects.
His room is pasted with Warner posters, replica Gray Nicholls plastic bats and his notebooks are a ledger of his scores – from BBL to Test cricket. So when he came to know that Warner was playing club cricket in Sydney – she still doesn't know how he stumbled on this piece of information-he persuaded his mother to take him there. So she sent the email, and they were on the bus to Coogee Oval, ringed by palm trees and a stone's throw away from the bustling cobalt-blue beach.
All they expected was a casual meeting, a handshake or an autograph Sam could treasure forever. But what he experienced was beyond his dreams. "David just took him away from me and told me that he will take care of him. He took him to the dressing room, introduced him to his teammates and told him to remain in the dressing room, instructed him to get him drinks and gloves during the breaks," she says.
Warner made just 13 runs in the match, dismissed by Steve Waugh's son Austin. But he returned smiling and began chatting with Sam. Later, after the match was over, he took him for a walk around the ground, made him bowl a few underarm balls, played footie together and gifted him his kitbag with a message: "Make me proud, little champ."
Warner then told Marita that this was the most emotional letter he had received since the scandal that plunged him to the depths of self-loathing and guilt. "His eyes were moist and I felt like crying, I never thought him to be so emotional. He even invited us to stay over at his place," she says. They couldn't as they had a bus to catch.
Throughout the journey, Sam kept hugging the kit and the next day when they reached home, there was an email from Warner in Marita's inbox: "Thank you for making my day. I was in a terrible mental shape and he just made me feel relaxed. I'll never forget the day."
So wouldn't Sam and his mother.
A month after the scandal exploded plunging the Australian cricket fraternity into mourning, when the condemnation was at its peak, former Test cricketer Mike Whitney thought he would call Warner, who had played three years for Randwick Petersham, a middling club. He was from the same locality as Warner, Mackerville, a middle-class neighbourhood, reputed for the toughness of residents. "Maybe, we come from such a locality that we're outwardly brave, might punch the face of someone who pushes us, but deep inside we are sensitive. So I knew what he might have been going through," says Whitney. The latter himself was on the verge of depression after he was dropped from the team following an indifferent series against West Indies in 1993-94.
When Warner answered the call, his voice was choking. He was still uncomfortable talking to his mentors. But Whitney knew how to go about the tricky conversation. "I didn't try to empathise with him, he hates it. So I straightaway asked him whether he was interested to play with the club again. He immediately said 'yes'. A strong 'yes', the one we are used to hearing from him. I told him to be at the club the next day and hung up."
Then, drafting him into the team wasn't as simple as that. It was around the time that the public antagonism was so much against him that there was opposition from several quarters against him playing any form of cricket. "I just told some of those that opposed to shut up, that everyone wants a second chance in life. He was stupid, but keeping him away from the game would eventually make us look stupid. Such a talent."
More than that, he realised how precious these players were at a time when batting talent in Australia is not bursting at the seams: "They're extraordinary players, these guys, and it's just sad that Cricket Australia was a bit knee-jerk in their reaction. No other players have ever been suspended for ball tampering. In my memory anyway, they get a one-match suspension or a fine and that's pretty much it but Cricket Australia, being a little pious I suppose, didn't see it that way," he says.
A week later, Warner turned up at the Marlborough Oval in Sydney. A few jaws dropped, some pinched themselves. 'Is it Warner? Really? But Warner immediately struck a rapport: "He's a lovely boy, in an hour he knew what each of them was doing, in which class their children studied or what their interests were. He has that knack, makes a lot of friends. Then he wore his jersey and he started bowling leg-spin. Quite good for our level," recollects Whitney.
Their first match was just a week away, and Warner gave his teammates a rousing speech, urging them to end their trophy drought, to fight their guts out.
"There was a match 5-6 years ago when he promised to turn up but didn't. He reminded me of that and told me that he would make amends," he says.
The first match, against St George's, he struck 155 off just 152 balls. "They had a good attack, Trent Copeland was one of the bowlers. He started carefully but then exploded. I was happy because I realised he had the fire in him to win back what he had lost."
After he reached his hundred, he kissed the club-insignia and leapt like he would celebrate a Test hundred. "It just showed how much the hundred meant to him. That evening he thanked me for the chance and was perhaps the most emotional I'd ever seen him. After that it became all fun. Everything from preparation to practice, he was so involved," Whitney says.
About a dozen games later, he averages nearly 100, though he couldn't steer them to a title. "It doesn't matter, if the stint has helped him in some way to recover from the emotional stress. Sometimes we forget that they're also humans, prone to mistakes. I have always considered him as a younger brother. He erred, he's a grown-up man to realise the gravity of his mistake, but as an elder brother it's my duty to help him out," says Whitney. Before he went to Bangladesh for the BPL, they had another conversation, in which he reminded Warner of their club's motto: "Trust, respect, humility."
John Stewart, the CEO of the club, was faced with a peculiar problem. On match-days, the Coogee Oval used to be so crowded that they were spilling into the ground. Some would watch from the adjacent roads or the balconies of the several eateries that dot the streets around it. There was so much crowd flocking to see Warner that they even contemplated hiking the gate fee, which is 5 Australian dollars. "Mike says, such crowds used to come only during the time when Len Pascoe used to play, or when the All Blacks dropped in for a practice game in the 70s."
The crowd peaked for the match against Sutherland, which featured Shane Watson and Steve Smith as players and Steve Waugh and Glenn McGrath among the audience. "It was like a carnival. Some 5,000 people crammed into the stadium, and as many were outside. The match got over at five, but when the players left it was seven-eight as they kept taking pictures and autographs with them," Stewart remembers.
It might have been slightly uncomfortable for some of the amateur players, but Warner never made any disparity evident. "He was like one of them, in fact made them train harder, made some of the lazy ones run several laps and helped youngsters like Jason Sangha. Both of them would be at the nets in the morning, even if there weren't any games. His commitment was amazing," says Stewart. Most of the players owe their better fitness to Warner as well.
Warner has largely maintained a stoic silence, unlike Cameron Bancroft and Steve Smith. The former had subtly accused Warner of pushing him into the mess.
Whitney also understands the reason he has remained aloof. "He's got misunderstood several times in life. He doesn't want to commit the same mistakes again. He's got so matured in these few months, and he's just focused on getting on with the game. He'll speak when he feels it's the right moment to speak," he says. But his actions in these outlawed months, Whitney says, have spoken more than the words.