Marcus Stoinis is having dinner at a restaurant not far from the family home in Perth's North Beach. The vibe is more low-key than he is accustomed to from six years living in Melbourne, though the food is delicious. But Stoinis isn't there for either, really; his focus is the company. Since he lost his dad, Chris, 11 months ago the two women he is sitting with – mum Faye and sister Natasha, whom he collectively refers to as "the girls" – have become the axis upon which his world turns. As is often the case, the trio's conversation circles back to Chris, who fought cancer for three years before finally succumbing last November. Memories and anecdotes bounce across the table. The night is sprinkled with happy tears, and Stoinis quietly marvels at the strength of the two women sitting with him. His mum, who has taken over a lot of the responsibilities of his dad's real estate business while dealing with such a devastating loss. His sister, who is a doctor in the same hospital where her father spent the final stages of his life.
"Girls are much tougher than us boys, I reckon," he says. "I go to training out in the sun, have a laugh with my mates, meet the girls for a coffee on my lunch break, then go back and finish my gym.
"So it's a lot less stressful for me."
Nine thousand kilometres away, Australia are playing a Test match in Dubai under the stewardship of new coach Justin Langer, Stoinis's long-time mentor. At dinner, he has been casting the occasional glance at the score on his phone and noticed the wickets column spinning like numbers on a slot machine as Australia's middle order again falls apart. His mind is never far from cricket, though on nights like these he allows it to drift a little farther.
In the weeks and months before he lost him forever, Stoinis sought to soak up as much wisdom from Chris as he could manage. He wrote down notes from their conversations. If he was driving, he would voice the thoughts and questions whirring in his head, so he could record them and revisit them when next he saw his dad. It makes him feel good to know that nothing was left unasked, or unsaid. He remembers Chris's simple message from towards their final days together.
"Nothing was really about cricket," he says. "It was: Have fun. Trust yourself."
Lately, he has been giving a lot of thought to those four words, and how they can shape his coming years.
The moment he saw his cousin, Lance, at the ground, he knew.
"I don't think he even said anything," Stoinis remembers of November 14, 2017, when he lost his father, aged 60. "We had a good hug. He's probably my best mate. There weren't many words."
Perhaps fittingly, he was playing cricket when it happened. The Warriors were taking on South Australia in a JLT Sheffield Shield match in Perth, and as fate would have it, another close mate in Adam Zampa was 12th man for the Redbacks. Zampa offered his own embrace, and the three men stood together, saying little, finding support in the quiet solidarity. Stoinis has texted Zampa since, a small expression of gratitude for his role as ballast during such a moment in his life. The South Australians later sent a card offering their condolences, and both teams donned black armbands as Stoinis pulled out of the match to be with his family. The next day, the WACA Ground flags flew at half-mast.
"I had serious, serious support from the cricket community," Stoinis says.
Almost a year on, he isn't quite sure where he sits with it all. He is thankful he was at least in Perth when it happened but he is still unpicking what the loss of his dad – his hero – means to him, and how he can best process it while moving ahead with his life, as he knows Chris would have wanted.
"I'm still in denial, definitely, because I still feel like I'll see Dad again," he says. "It's like maybe I've been away on a long tour, or been in Melbourne for a while, because that's how it was.
"Obviously I know that Dad's gone, but it doesn't sink in a lot of the time.
"It's probably natural, I guess. There's no fix. And I'm not sad about it – I have really good memories of Dad, and more often than not, thinking about him makes me smile.
"It's only when I forget, and start thinking actually, that's not happening again – ever … I get caught in that sometimes … that's what I'm struggling with.
"When I think about that, I wish I did move back earlier."
Stoinis harbours a degree of guilt about his decision to stay in Victoria up until last August, three months or so before Chris's death. From any angle other than his own, it seems misplaced. Typically, he had his family's support – and his dad's blessing – to continue pursuing his cricket with the Vics, just as he did way back in 2011 when, despite not even having a state contract, it was boldly decided that if he was going to play for Australia, that was the city he would do it from. Following the diagnosis, and as his dad's health deteriorated, he flew back and forth from Melbourne to Perth so frequently that he felt apologetic to Cricket Victoria through their unconditional support. He thinks back to that period, and the words bubble forth even if he can't quite choose them as well as he intends.
"You wish … if you knew everything that was going to happen, and I knew it was going to happen then … there were so many times where I felt like I was the boy crying wolf because there were so many close calls with Dad," he says. "I'd come home and he'd be OK, and by the time I got back to Melbourne, Dad would be back in hospital and I'd be thinking, Why did I leave?
"There's only so much you can do – what can you do? You can hang out with your dad in hospital, but he was telling me to get away from there anyway.
"It's just very hard in hindsight."
In the difficult days that followed his father's death, he was desperate to let people know exactly what his mum and sister had been through in those emotional final years. He made it a focal point of his eulogy; the fact Natasha had saved their father's life on multiple occasions, and the way in which his mum had looked after her husband unconditionally, staying by his side through every operation, be it in Sydney or Perth, from beginning to end.
"There were a lot of things I wanted to put in perspective, which at the time seemed very important, because you're very emotional and very proud of your family," Stoinis says.
"I don't remember it too much, but it was one of the best things I've ever done. It was really hard, and there were definitely tears, but it was really good to reflect on Dad, and to give other people perspective on what Dad had been through, but also what Mum and Tash had been through.
"I didn't want that to get glossed over."
Since losing their patriarch, the three have become closer than ever. Stoinis sees a duty of sorts to fill that gap but equally he is aware that, as the youngest in the family, he is being looked out for by the girls. As ever, their relationships remain open and communicative.
"We are unbelievably passionate people, my family," says Stoinis, who has this year taken up an ambassadorial role with the Movember Foundation, the official men's health charity partner of Cricket Australia, which aims to stop men dying too young.
"We say everything we need to say to each other, every day nearly."
Stoinis has just emerged from the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, a stone's throw from his beautiful family home, complete with pool and tennis court. When he returned from Melbourne, he moved back here with his mum and sister. Natasha, who is a year older, is moving out soon to a nearby apartment, but Marcus has no immediate plans to follow suit; it is no small insight that despite his status as a highly-paid international sportsperson, he feels like the family home, in the company of the girls and where memories can be so easily triggered, is the best place for him right now. He steps back across the road and buys a coffee, completing what is about to become the pre-routine for his daily regimen when at home this summer.
For Stoinis even more than most, cricket is a game played between the ears. He is a man of structures and processes, which he sees as paramount to shaping the fortunes of his days and innings. He believes in visualisation and the importance of recreating a comfortable, familiar environment whenever he plays away from home. He listens to podcast interviews with successful and creative people such as Elon Musk and David Goggins, while he has invested considerable time and money into a longstanding relationship with Sydney-based sports psychologist Dave Diggle, who his dad took note of when he saw him on television working with the Wallabies years ago.
"It's not about technique all the time … I think you're very far away from that when you get to the professional level," Stoinis says.
"It's more about mindset. It's more about the energy you've got to get ready to perform, it's about following the process and keeping a clear mind, more so than taking a big front step forward.
"The basics are definitely important, but mindset, and that energy to be able to peak every single day, that's what is so valuable."
He sees an insatiable drive and unrelenting passion in Virat Kohli and wants it for himself. That, he insists, is the key to success in the unrelenting world of contemporary sport – the ability to be the fiercest competitor in every innings of every game of every series. He would never use it as an excuse, but he knows he was unable to give that kind of commitment to his cricket in the summers either side of his dad's passing. The weight of it all was too much, and the numbers reflected his divided mind; his combined Shield batting average of 43.75 from 2014-15 and 2015-16 dropped drastically to an even 17 across the past two seasons. In 24 trips to the middle, he failed to make a single half-century.
But he is experienced now and can draw confidence from his achievements. He remembers his record-breaking 146 in an ODI against New Zealand in Auckland back in January 2017 – a near-perfect storm of intelligence and power that showcased his ability as a genuine match-winner.
"It's almost something you bottle up and take a sip of every now and then, just to remind yourself," he says. "That was a very good attack, and a situation where a lot of things were against me.
"So it's something you remember, you don't get too caught up in, and it adds a piece to the puzzle you use to trust yourself."
He feels comfortable that he has developed a formula that works for him in one-day cricket, though he points out that knowledge and execution are two very different beasts. He knows, too, that his approach to a 50-over innings (which is essentially to take his time to assess the conditions, and worry about strike-rate later, safe in the knowledge he can turn it around in a hurry) has not been universally accepted, but he has grown tired of trying to please everyone.
"I've been criticised for that throughout my career already, and I experimented with changing that through the JLT Cup (in which his strike-rate was 164.54)," he says.
"And I've gone from being apparently an average player of spin, to a good player of spin.
"The main thing for me is to keep my mind really clear, and to trust myself.
"If you're always trying to listen to someone else and their opinion, that might be great, but I actually kind of … I just can't be f---ed anymore."
For a deep thinker like Stoinis, it is a new attitude, and potentially the makings of a breakthrough.
At 29, Stoinis is at an age when Ricky Ponting had made 7,000 Test runs, and Mike Hussey was a year away from scoring his first. He knows he is reaching a kind of tipping point, where a meaningful Test career could begin or become beyond him. That's where his mind has ventured lately. To what he calls "proper cricket". He sees himself in five years' time "ideally playing Test cricket, having played a lot of Test cricket, and still going". So when he was overlooked for Australia's T20 squad for the three-match series against Pakistan in the UAE this month, he detected the silver lining easily.
"Obviously I was disappointed, and I felt I should be in the team given (form in) the JLT Cup," he says. "But pretty quickly I thought, Well, this could be happening perfectly for me – because really, I want to play Test cricket."
As rivals for Test places such as Glenn Maxwell flew to Dubai, Stoinis was busy compiling an impressive 80 on day one of the Shield season – his first fifty in the competition in more than two-and-a-half years. He followed it up with figures of 4-73 – his best innings return in first-class cricket. Crucially, it meant another two four-day matches to press his claims for a Test berth in the home summer. He knows Langer wants consistent Shield runs from him, and he feels assured that should he be selected for Australia in any format, he is well-equipped for success.
"Maybe people want to see more from me and that's fine, but I know my game – I know I can deal with pressure, I know I can change a game, I know I can bat in all different situations," he says.
"So if I perform (for WA) and get picked, I've got this real trust that I can do a great job.
"Obviously I would love to do a bloody great job in Test cricket – that's what I think about, coming into a tough situation, or batting in the subcontinent, and spending a long period of time in the middle."
He has had many conversations with Langer over the years, encompassing everything from technical adjustments to ruminations on life. They're aware of their propensity to mine their minds almost too much, so often they catch themselves, and take a step back.
"We've had a few meetings where after the meetings we give each other a hug and say, 'Actually, nah stuff that, that's way too much – let's just keep it real simple, we're gonna think enough as it is – we don't need to add more'," he says.
"That will probably get better and better as we build that relationship with him as coach. And that mindset he has, coupled with a serious work ethic, that's a great combination."
Stoinis also knows that Langer has some technical suggestions for his batting, which the Test legend believes will aid his game. But he has become cautious with advice, unwilling to dive into every suggestion thrown his way for fear of upsetting what is a fairly delicate status quo.
"I agree with him to an extent, but it's such a catch-22 – you want to always get better technically, but there's no real substitute for being very clear in your mind, and knowing exactly what you want to do," he says.
"That would be number one for me. Technique number two."
He cites the example of former Victoria teammate and close friend Peter Handscomb, who had his technique questioned last summer following a run of poor form and endured a torrid run thereafter, before recently hitting a purple patch in the JLT One-Day Cup.
"Everyone is questioning his technique, yet in the last four or five (JLT Cup) one-day matches he made fifties, and it's probably no coincidence that it happens once he gets outside of the critical eye of the media, or even coaches," he says.
"They don't do it with any malice, but that's what occupies your mind (as a batsman), and you forget to do what you're really good at.
"And I think there's more to be gained in doing what you're really good at, than there is in improving the little things that you're not good at."
In the months after losing his dad, Stoinis spoke about the perspective he had found, or perhaps rediscovered. How he was slowly reminding himself to have fun with his cricket. He had considered taking time away from the game. But as an adult, cricket is all he has known, and he felt lost as soon as he withdrew. It also served as a healthy distraction from Chris's ongoing battle.
"Every time I would stop," he says, "I realised I needed it to keep me occupied."
There was also his unwavering self-belief. A trust so deep that he was never going to simply walk away. It is the same asset that has underpinned his entire career. He thinks back to those lonely early days in Melbourne – "no mates, no batting coach, I wasn't even training with Victoria" – and wonders how he didn't pack it all in and try his hand at something else. But equally, he knows he was not going to allow that to happen. Now he has spent a decade on the first-class scene, and he feels certain he knows his game better than ever, and the calculus required for success.
Have fun. Trust yourself.
As he remaps his path to Test cricket, it is his father's advice he is heeding.