Test Mortem: Smith to opener an act of convenience, team shows signs of fatigue, Pakistan selectors deserve an uppercut
Steve Smith becoming the surprise frontrunner to replace David Warner as opener so the selectors can shoehorn Cameron Green into the side looks like an act of convenience rather than the right outcome.
Australia are now looking ahead to the “challenge” of taking on a weakened West Indies side in a two-match schedule filler after Warner roared into retirement with a rousing half-century as they sealed a clean sweep of Pakistan at the SCG.
And after all the talk from the likes of coach Andrew McDonald about the various options to replace Warner as Usman Khawaja’s opening partner, Smith now looks like he will get the gig mainly because none of the other incumbents want the role.
It appears when the call for volunteers to partner Khawaja was made, the other middle-order batters all took a step backwards, leaving Smith as the only option.
Is that the way a team should make such a crucial decision? Canvass the candidates and wait for someone to say yes. Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh and Travis Head made it clear they were happy with their current spots.
If Smith had done the same and said he was unwilling to take on the new ball, heaven forbid the selectors may have been forced into a situation where they would have to make a tough decision.
You know, the kind of tough call that they’re paid to make.
As it stands, Green will come back into the team at four, where he has fired consistently for Western Australia. His reward for a form slump at international level has been to get a recall two spots higher in the order.
He has never batted higher than six at Test level while Smith has opened precisely zero times in his 187 trips to the crease over a 14-year career.
The two Tests against an outclassed Caribbean cohort will give Australia next to no real context about whether Smith at opener of Green at four will be a success against teams that are able to field a competitive line-up.
Australia have a two-match tour of New Zealand next month which will be no walk in the park, particularly when two of your top four are in positions where they have little Test experience.
The conditions in the Shaky Isles will test out batting techniques – there will be seam off the pitch and swing in the late summer/early autumn air.
And that’s their last Test assignment before the five-match home blockbuster against India next summer when Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Shami and co will look to make it three successful tours to Australia on the trot by giving the top order another working over.
Smith has become a mere mortal in recent years when it comes to stepping across the stumps and working the ball through the leg side, bringing the LBW dismissal more and more into the equation no matter how upset he looks each time when an umpire or DRS has a differing opinion to his.
That opinion 99.9% of the time is “no way was that out, the ball was clearly missing the stumps, I’m taking my bat and going home”.
Even when he fell for the obvious three catchers at cover ploy in Sydney, it was the pitch’s fault as he looked down at the surface with disgust rather than castigating himself for a poor shot.
Test skipper Pat Cummins said on Saturday that Smith’s surprise switch was still not set in stone.
“I’m pretty happy with (Smith)’s output at No.4,” Cummins said. “Obviously Marnus, Smudge (Smith), Trav and Marsh have been pretty impressive at No.3, No.4, No.5 and No.6.
“So first instinct isn’t probably to disrupt that.”
Poor old Matt Renshaw, Cameron Bancroft and Marcus Harris meanwhile sit by the phone – the specialist openers waiting for a call or the modern-day equivalent of a DM from the selectors via WhatsApp.
There is little to no history of middle-order specialists suddenly making a success of opening at such a late stage of their career.
Perhaps it’s the kind of challenge Smith craves to fire up his competitive juices for the final stretch of his playing days as he has looked a little stale over the past 12 months.
There’s no chance of him regaining the captaincy on a full-time basis and apart from playing his part in the T20 World Cup campaign in June, there is nothing left to prove in the white-ball arena.
But what if it doesn’t work? Will the selectors then reinstate him to four and Green gets punted again or will Smith decide the time has come to call it a day to give his decade-younger protege clear air for the future?
Judging by their ongoing reluctance to tell Warner his time was up for two years when he was clearly past his use-by date, the selectors won’t be telling Smith to jump before he is pushed.
Team showing signs of fatigue
The Australian brains trust shouldn’t need to check their sports science results to see this team is looking fatigued.
After narrowly getting past Pakistan at the MCG, they had lengthy periods in Sydney where they were well off the pace and if not for a game-changing Josh Hazlewood spell on day three, the tourists could very well have broken their Down Under drought which stretches way back to 1995 at the same venue.
Apart from getting the openers for a duck, Hazlewood and new-ball partner Mitchell Starc seemed to lack zip at the SCG in the first innings.
They each struck early in the second innings before Hazlewood produced a three-wicket maiden as part of his 4-16 haul.
Travis Head, another of the three-format stars, had a down series with just 81 runs from five bats – keeping him in India after the World Cup for three meaningless T20 hit and giggle missions was far from ideal preparation for the home Test summer.
Smith and Marnus Labuschagne also don’t seem to have the endless powers of concentration that they displayed at their peak a couple of years ago while Usman Khawaja, who plays just one format at international level, was not able to get out of second gear.
Khawaja, who was controversially rested from a couple of Sheffield Shield matches to be fresh for the Tests, missed an easy catch in the slips cordon which in isolation is no big deal but when players are 37 and the reflexes start slowing down, the drop-off in form can be quick at this level.
After leading all scorers in Tests last year there is not even a scintilla of doubt over Khawaja’s position but the Aussies need him to remain their rock at the top of the order with an opening newbie in Smith likely to be by his side for the foreseeable future.
Pakistan selectors deserve an uppercut
Resting pace spearhead Shaheen Shah Afridi from the Third Test goes down as one of the dopiest and most cowardly decisions from a touring team in a long time.
Pakistan have a five-match T20 series in New Zealand coming up and the selectors wanted to keep him fresh for that campaign.
Apart from the players and perhaps their immediate family members, exactly who will remember what happens in that series within a few weeks of its completion?
You can see why Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram were so fired up in their respective commentary booths over the boneheaded move to rest Shaheen.
It’s fair to say that if Shaheen was steaming in at the SCG instead of Hasan Ali (0-68 for the match) or Mir Hamza (1-62) that Pakistan would have been much more likely to rack up a bigger first-innings lead than 14 and could have been a far greater chance of bowling them out on the deteriorating day-four wicket.
After going close to upsetting the Australians in Melbourne, this was their chance to spring an upset in conditions most reminiscent of what they’re used to on home soil.
Carey better with no sweater
Alex Carey gets no sympathy for getting bowled by a ball which clipped the leg bail because its trajectory was dragged down slightly after brushing his jumper.
For those who missed it, Carey was beaten by a straight ball from Sajid Khan which just hit the top of his castle following the slightest of touches from his sleeveless sweater.
If you need a garment for warmth while playing professional sport, you are not exerting enough energy.
Woollen sweaters should be the domain only for golf or lawn bowls.