Steve Smith becoming a Test opener was not on too many people’s bingo card heading into the year, but ten days into 2024, here we are.
Here you have arguably the best No.4 batter of this century, and one of the greatest No.4s of all time, voluntarily moving to the top of the order and opting to start from scratch, giving away his prized spot just like that.
It’s a head-scratcher like no other. Certainly, we haven’t seen such a drastic change in Test cricket this entire century. And there’s a reason people never do it — in order to not try and fix something that’s not broken.
So, why are Australia and Smith trying to fix something that’s nearly not broken enough to need fixing?
There are multiple reasons, and they all make sense.
First things first, let’s make something clear. Smith did not ‘need’ to do this. This is not some sort of last-ditch attempt to save his career (like India did with Rohit Sharma in 2019).
Sure enough, he did not have a good 2023 by his high standards. And yes, his best years might actually be behind him.
Yet, in what was statistically his worst year in a decade, Smith still averaged 42 and struck three Test hundreds. In his worst run of form in an eternity, he got dismissed under 25 just once in 10 innings.
So yes, Smith is not moving up the order to ‘save his career’.
But he might very well be doing it to rejuvenate it. Or, more pertinently, to prolong it.
For a while now, Smith has admitted that he knows that the end is near. He was the center of retirement speculation last year, and at the start of 2023, he remarked that he does not know how much time he’s still got at the highest level.
“I really can't say how long I'll play for. I'm not sure. Take it one tour at a time,” Smith said last year.
"Just enjoy it and enjoy training and trying to get better as well. Whilst I'm doing that I'm happy playing. But I don't know how long it'll last."
Retirement talks have died down over the past few months, but there’s still a fear among many that Smith might pull the plug on his career soon due to multiple reasons, not least the absence of motivation, having pretty much achieved everything there is.
In that sense, this promotion to the top of the order serves as a shot in the arm for Smith’s Test career; a new leash on life.
Having never previously opened at the first-class level in red-ball cricket, Smith is diving head first into unknown territory. From a personal standpoint, opening in Tests is as fresh a challenge Smith could have hoped for.
Thus, this reboot might just be what he needs to not just prolong but reinvigorate his career, which seems to have hit a plateau.
“If opening motivates him and gets the cricket world Steven Smith for another two or three years, I think that is a massive win,” Labuschagne said of the prospect of Smith opening, last week.
Everyone wants to see Smith play Test cricket for 2-3 more years, and this change might just pave the way for it.
This is the human aspect of the reshuffle.
There is a cricketing side to it as well, and the move will only make sense — and be a success — if there is cricketing merit behind the promotion.
Turns out, that’s there in abundance.
To answer that, we need to bring into this discussion Cameron Green, who the management unequivocally believe is among the best six batters in the country, and should not sit out just because he is not an opener.
This is a claim that cannot be refuted: Green’s extraordinary shield record speaks for itself; he is, simply put, the best young batter in the country.
The second question is ‘why Smith and not Green?’.
The answer to this is that the management believe it’d be far easier for Smith, a veteran, to nail the challenge of opening, which is the toughest job in Test cricket. Now that there’s a choice, they are not interested in throwing Green to the wolves and risk derailing his progress.
Additionally, pushing Smith to the opening slot helps the management to slot Green in at No.4, his best position in first-class cricket.
Each of Green’s 36 Test innings have come at No.6 or below, but the right-hander is, by nature, a top-order batter whose strength lies in building an innings (not a counter-attacking lower-order batter like Travis Head or Mitchell Marsh). In his first-class career, Green averages 65.1 in 24 innings No.4, and has smashed more hundreds there (4) than in any other position.
Australia see Green as the Test side’s long-term No.4 so bedding him into his preferred position whilst the seniors are still around will ensure that the transition is smooth. Labuschagne, Green and Head at #3, #4 and #5 is Australia’s long-term vision and so Smith opening enables them to get the trio batting together already.
The final question is ‘is Smith capable of opening the batting in Tests?’ and from the evidence we have, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’.
Smith has never previously opened the batting in first-class cricket but he has batted at No.3 in 17 Tests, and he averaged 67.07 in those games.
Six of those 17 Tests came in non seam-friendly conditions in the subcontinent but in the other 11 matches, played across England, Australia and West Indies, the 34-year-old averaged 66.56.
Moreover, there have been plenty of instances where Smith, despite being a No.4, has walked in to bat against a brand new ball due to the openers falling cheaply. And he’s excelled in such situations.
In his career, Smith has walked in to bat inside the first 10 overs of an innings 45 times, and has averaged 58.29 in these knocks. Outside Asia, this average actually rises to 60.7.
Granted, most of these games came when Smith was at his peak, and he’s past his prime now. Still, despite not racking up the runs, survival — the most important skill for an opening batter — has not been an issue for Smith, even during this barren run.
Across his last 10 Test innings, Smith has averaged 41.88 with no tons to his name, but he’s faced an average of 79.2 balls per innings. He’s not been at his fluent best with the bat, but he’s still been pretty darn difficult to dismiss.
Australia will hope that Smith also gets some of his fluency back as he opens the batting. Of late, he’s been targeted with funky fields and funky tactics with the old ball, but teams are unlikely to do the same with a new ball, for they will effectively be ‘wasting’ the new cherry by deploying unconventional tactics. This might in turn play into the hands of Smith, who might find scoring easier, due to more gaps being present.
The immense success Usman Khawaja has found opening the batting will also fill Smith and Australia with confidence.
Prior to the Pakistan series in March 2022, Khawaja had only opened sporadically in his first-class career, opening in just 13.8% of the innings in his career. However, he’s since become a full-time opener and has enjoyed enormous success, averaging 54.79 while scoring tons in India, Australia and England, among other countries.
Australia will hence believe that there’s no reason Smith shouldn’t also be able to nail the opening challenge, much like his colleague.
There are a couple of cons to this move, though, the biggest one being — what if Smith fails? Do they send him back down the order, or do they drop him altogether? And if they do drop him down the order, what will they do with Green? And what if Green succeeds at No.4 and Smith doesn’t as an opener?
Australia will be put in a really tough spot if this experiment does not come off.
Even if it comes off, the downside of this move is that Australia, in 2-3 years time, will have to look for not one but two new openers, with both Smith and Khawaja in the wrong side of their thirties.
But the management are hoping that, by then, they’d have identified clear successors that can do a job at the top of the order for an extended period. Essentially, with this move, they are buying themselves time by delaying the inevitable.
There are no ‘fool-proof’ decisions in sport, but factoring in everything, it’s fair to say that Australia have taken the wisest decision possible, even if it’s one that seems crazy on the first look.
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