Smith’s time is up: Selectors miss golden chance to look to the future with short-sighted leadership decision
There is no doubt Steve Smith is a fine tactician but he will never be Australia’s permanent captain again in any format.
So there is little to no point in making him skipper for the ODI series and telling Travis Head to be his deputy.
The Australian selectors yet again prioritised the present instead of planning for the future when they named Smith as skipper ahead of Head for the three ODIs against the West Indies early next month while Pat Cummins takes a well-earned rest.
Head was elevated to vice-captain status alongside Smith in the Test team under Cummins before the recent Pakistan series and is quite rightly being viewed as Australia’s next long-term leader.
As a three-format star, who is relatively young by current Australian selection standards at 30, the South Australian left-hander is the ideal candidate to assume the Test and ODI duties from Cummins when he offloads the responsibilities down the track or retires altogether.
Australia are yet to confirm who will be the full-time T20 skipper who succeeds Aaron Finch after Mitchell Marsh and Matthew Wade have filled in recently in the South Africa and India series.
With the T20 World Cup coming up in June and the Aussies enjoying a light international schedule after a hectic 2023 campaign, it wouldn’t be a great surprise if they hand Cummins the role for the tournament to offer him the chance to captain all three sides to the ultimate trophy.
If not, it makes sense for Head to be T20 skipper with a view to him eventually taking on the Test leadership.
Which makes the decision to hand the reins to Smith for the Windies ODI assignment even more confounding.
Cummins has missed four Tests in his first couple of years as captain due to COVID, injury and the death of his mother and if he were to miss another match in the near future, it would also be an opportunity missed if Smith deputised again.
Head has cut his teeth (it’s so hard not to use puns intentionally or otherwise with a surname like that) at domestic level with South Australia and the Adelaide Strikers as a skipper.
He is also a proven media performer. Eloquent and casual without being too blokey, Head will be able to deal with the extra attention that comes with being captain.
Smith is much better nowadays but it seemed that burden annoyed him more than it should during his first foray into leadership following Michael Clarke’s retirement.
Australia need to start ushering in the next generation of the team wherever possible rather than just waiting for the natural attrition of veterans like David Warner eventually retiring.
Even though they are the roughly same age as Cummins, it will be up to Head and Marnus Labuschagne to be the senior pros in the team once Smith, Usman Khawaja, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood start cutting back on formats or retiring altogether.
In more immediate matters, Smith and Head have crucial roles to play in the new-look batting line-up when the First Test against the West Indies gets underway at Adelaide on Wednesday.
There has been plenty of pontificating about Smith’s surprise move to opener and Cameron Green returning to the side two slots higher than usual at No.4.
What this means for Head and Mitchell Marsh as the team’s two strokemakers following Green has received less attention.
A potential problem for Australia now that Warner has put his tattered baggy green in mothballs is that all of their top four batters are accumulators rather than aggressors.
In an era of white-ball proliferation, batters seem to be at the grinding long-form end of the scale or explosive hitters with very few in between.
After a patchy run of form leading into the pandemic, Head has thrived over the past two years by using attack as his best form of defence.
Marsh has also had a career renaissance by counter-attacking the bowling.
They can’t be the only two batters in the top six who are are charged with keeping the run rate ticking along.
And there is a danger that if the top four stick at their current strike rate of less than 50, that Head and Marsh will overdo their attacking instincts, which could tip them over that fine line between aggression and recklessness.
Green indicated to reporters on Monday that he would be taking his time at the crease. This from a guy with a strike rate already at a pedestrian 46.5.
“I’ve always felt maybe a touch rushed at six, especially after Heady, who makes it look a bit too easy at No.5,” he said.
“I’ve always felt like I’ve maybe had to push the game along, where I feel like No.4 is my natural game where I can take my time and settle in.”
Not that this two-match Test series against the West Indies is likely to provide too many testing scenarios but the tour to New Zealand then next summer’s home showdown with India will be where Australia truly discovers whether the rejigged batting order is all that it’s being made out to be.
The other potential danger lurking in the shadows is that after Head, Green and Marsh, there aren’t many middle-order options chalking up runs at Sheffield Shield level to suggest they can step into the breach.
There was all sorts of talk that Cameron Bancroft, Matt Renshaw and Marcus Harris had not done enough to demand selection for Warner’s opening gig but the situation is worse for Australia when it comes to batters suited to the middle order.
Western Australian all-rounder Aaron Hardie is probably the next cab off the rank, South Australia’s Nathan McSweeney and NSW rookie Ollie Davies are the only batters putting up decent numbers who look like they could have a long-term future at Test level.
With fast bowlers also heading for the retirement lounge in a few years time when Head takes over as Test captain, he could be in for a rebuild so the Australian selectors might as well give him as much of a chance to learn on the run in the meantime.