MELBOURNE:Distraught and in tears, Tim Paine stepped down as captain of Australia's test cricket team on Friday after revelations he had been investigated and cleared over sexually explicit text messages sent to a female colleague four years ago.
The scandal plunged Australia's Ashes preparations into disarray three weeks before the first test begins in Brisbane and placed the 36-year-old wicketkeeper's international career in jeopardy.
Breaking down while reading from a statement, Paine admitted he had been investigated by the sport's national integrity unit over messages he sent to a former Cricket Tasmania staffer in 2017, a few months before he took over the captaincy.
Though cleared of wrongdoing, the husband and father-of-three said, on reflection, his actions had not met the standards of an Australian cricket captain or the wider community.
"I'm deeply sorry for the hurt and pain that I have caused to my wife, my family, and to the other party," Paine told reporters in Hobart.
"I'm sorry for any damage that this does to the reputation of our sport and I believe that it is the right decision for me to stand down as captain, effective immediately."
The tenures of Australia's last two captains have now been book-ended by scandal, with Paine replacing Steve Smith in the wake of the Newlands ball-tampering affair in 2018.
Melbourne's Herald Sun newspaper published alleged text message exchanges between Paine and the woman, and said she had complained that he had sent an unsolicited picture of his genitals.
Cricket authorities rallied around Paine, revealing that the woman complained to them only after she was charged with theft in the wake of resigning from her job.
Paine's "interaction" with the woman was "consensual, private, occurred on the one occasion only ... and was not repeated," Cricket Tasmania said.
However, his exoneration in the earlier probe, and Cricket Tasmania's characterisation of the matter as "between mature adults", may not be enough to save him.
The investigation lay buried for nearly four years and may have stayed that way indefinitely, had the Herald Sun not reported the sordid details immediately before his mea culpa.
"We thought this incident was behind us and that I could focus entirely on the team, as I have done for the last three or four years," said Paine, who was married to wife Bonnie in 2016.
"However, I recently became aware that this private text exchange was going to become public."
Paine said he was still available for selection but cricket pundits could not see how he could remain in the team, with his presence likely to be a huge distraction before and during the Ashes.
Local cricket fans spoke of the traditional adage, that the captaincy of the test team is the country's "second highest office" after the Prime Minister.
"The man's in a marriage with children, he's the captain of the Australian cricket team," Sydney resident Craig Jarman told Reuters.
"I mean it's just appalling, appalling what he's been doing and what's been happening."
When Paine took the captaincy in 2018, he was perceived as a cleanskin in a tainted outfit.
He wore a brave face as Australia struggled on-field and won acclaim for bringing cultural change to a team often derided for its aggressive on-field conduct.
Some eighteen months into his captaincy, he was hailed a national hero as Australia retained the Ashes in England for the first time in nearly 20 years.
Paine's leadership lost some of its lustre as Australia succumbed to a depleted India 2-1 on home soil last summer. But the chance remained to redeem that loss against England in the Ashes.
He resigns after 23 tests as captain, with 11 wins, eight losses and four draws.
Vice captain Pat Cummins will be expected to take the captaincy, making him only the second specialist fast bowler in the role since Ray Lindwall led in one test against India in the mid-1950s.
Paine's place in the dressing room, however, remains on far shakier ground.