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Monday, 17 June 2024
Sports

Steve Smith elevation to opener could end career on sour note, analysis, David Warner replacement

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On the eve of the start of the Test summer in Perth last month, Australia’s champion batter Steve Smith was putting into practice the adage that the early bird gets the worm.

From the initial training session at the WACA Ground, the 34-year-old was first into the pads and straight out into the middle of the ground for another searching training session.

It was the same at the MCG on Christmas Eve, with the 2015 ICC Cricketer receiving throw downs from Australian coach Andrew McDonald and later facing off-spinner Nathan Lyon.

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But for the first time in an outstanding career, Smith will lead the Australian batting order at Adelaide Oval against the West Indies next week in another extraordinary chapter in his life.

Australian selector George Bailey was reluctant to classify Smith’s promotion to the top of the order, which allows Cameron Green to resume his Test career, as an experiment on Wednesday.

NEW FOLLOW-ON PODCAST – Australia’s great Test team reshuffle

When noting more than 50 percent of Australia’s openers over the past three decades previously batted down the order, Bailey said he had never heard the phrase “specialist opener” thrown around more than in recent weeks regarding the new vacancy.

Never has an Australian been more statistically equipped to excel as an opening batsman than Smith, who will no longer have to wait anxiously in the sheds for his chance to arrive.

If the elevation of Smith to the top of the order works, and Green fires at No.4, it is the equivalent to Australia striking another rich vein of gold from an already well-worked mine.

Should the 34-year-old continue to perform for another three years, Smith can help smooth the transition process the Australian team has now entered with the retirement of Warner.

Green, too, now has the time to build confidence and cement his position against the West Indies and New Zealand in a spot where he has already batted with success for Western Australia.

His presence adds another bowling option to an outstanding attack already bolstered by the presence of fellow all-rounder Mitch Marsh and part-timer Travis Head, whose off-spin cameos have proven handy.

Smith in box seat to replace Warner | 02:42

But it is disingenuous to consider the reshuffle of the Australian batting order as anything other than a significant gamble given the potential ramifications with a view to India next summer.

Although his form over the past 12 months has been well below his peak, Smith still averaged 43 in Test cricket in 2023, a year featuring difficult tours to India and England.

But as Fox Cricket expert analyst Ian Smith noted when it was first revealed Smith had aspirations of being moved to the top of the order, what happens if it does not work out? Does Smith go from being Australia’s champion batsman to out of the team?

“He is just a great player and I think he deserves to go out on his own terms,” Smith said.

“But … If it didn’t work for him – say he failed four or five times in a row at the top of the order, badly – what then?

“Do you drop him back to No.4 and say, ‘That’s okay. We tried it with you.’ And then get someone else in?”

Cameron Green of Australia warms up prior to day one of the Men's Third Test Match in the series between Australia and Pakistan at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 03, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)
Cameron Green of Australia warms up prior to day one of the Men’s Third Test Match in the series between Australia and Pakistan at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 03, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

Bailey, who noted Smith’s recent approach to Test cricket had been to consider his future from series-by-series, effectively confirmed the opening spot will be the last position Australia’s finest batsman of the modern era appears in.

“It may do. It’s not something that he’s doing on a whim, that he wants to do for one match and see how it goes,” Bailey said.

“(There is) almost a series-to-series sentiment (as to) how he’s feeling about Test cricket and one of the things I’m really excited about the change is that I think he is really motivated and energised and excited about this new opportunity and fingers crossed that can provide some longevity for him in the in the format as well.”

Speaking in Sydney at the end of the Pakistan series, Fox Cricket expert Isa Guha cited the difficulty England had replacing Andrew Strauss at the top of the order when noting the tricky task now confronting Australia.

“There was a revolving door of openers, because opening is very hard to do,” she said.

“I guess that is why David Warner was even more impressive, because he was able to sustain over 100 Test matches and was always one of the first names on the team sheet.”

Steve Smith walks off the field after his dismissal during the third day of the third cricket Test match between Australia and Pakistan at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney on January 5, 2024. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP)Source: AFP

Uncertainty at the top of the order is something Australia endured prior to Usman Khawaja re-establishing himself alongside Warner over the past couple of seasons.

The overlooked openers Cameron Bancroft and Marcus Harris, along with the recalled Matthew Renshaw, all had their chances. So, too, did Will Pucovski and Aaron Finch, though their opportunities were short-lived for contrasting reasons.

One of Australia’s great strengths during its run to the World Test Championship triumph was its overall consistency, as Guha noted when discussing the potential impact of Warner’s retirement.

“It is a well-oiled unit and a sign of a good team is when everyone is performing at different times. They know their roles pretty well,” she said.

“They have their game plan nailed in the way they play. But I think David Warner is going to be a big loss, so managing that transition will be interesting to watch in the coming months.”

The flip side is that Smith, who has never opened in first class cricket, could prove to be an outstanding success. He has got form for that. And as a case study when it comes to middle-order batters moving up to open the innings, none have been better credentialled.

The Sydneysider is the first Australian player, and the 22nd in all, to have scored more than 10,000 runs in first class cricket before opening the batting in a match at that level.

He has also made 32 Test centuries for his country. His new opening partner Khawaja had made four Test tons before regaining his place at the top of the order two years ago.

Smith also excels when coming in to bat in the infancy of the innings, demonstrating he is adept at handling the intricacies that come with facing the new ball.

Former England captain Michael Vaughan told Fox Cricket the promotion of Smith to the top of the order could reap rich rewards, headed by the way he is likely to be bowled to.

“The opponents generally target him with short stuff as soon as he walks out there these days and maybe if he opens the batting, he can get to 30 or 40 before they go for that,” Vaughan said.

Smith is not a like-for-like replacement for Warner and Green is in a unique situation in that the man whose shoes he is stepping into is still in the team, with it likely they will bat together this summer.

Cameron Green of Australia bats in the nets during a training session ahead of the Third Test Match between Australia and Pakistan at Sydney Cricket Ground on January 02, 2024 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)Source: Getty Images

That Australia has been desperate to have Green back in the national team has been clear for weeks and the Western Australian worked hard in the nets during the Pakistan series.

Green did not fire during the Ashes after a promising start, but barring a hamstring niggle, it is likely he would have played in Edgbaston. Instead Marsh seized his chance.

But if the reshuffle works, the niggle Green felt during the fourth Ashes could yet prove most fortuitous, with Australia fielding an even stronger team for the series against India next year and the return bout of the Ashes the summer after that.

Steve Smith to be new Aussie opener? | 01:28

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