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Would Australia have regained the Ashes without Steve Smith?

Brett McKay Columnist

By Brett McKay, Brett McKay is a Roar Expert

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    When a series scoreline reads as one-sided as Australia’s 4-0 Ashes triumph does, and when the player of the series discussion must’ve been one of the shortest in the history of the sporting universe, the hypotheticals don’t take much to surface.

    Australian captain Steven Smith had a pretty fair time of it. “Got a few out of the middle”, he’d say in that nonchalant, non-committal manner that he’s becoming known for.

    Got a few out of the middle, you know, in the same way that Ian Thorpe used to jump in for a casual paddle, and Cathy Freeman used to go for a bit of a run.

    Smith’s final series stats were, obviously, extraordinary.

    687 runs at a staggering average of 137.40, with 67 boundaries, but only one maximum, as the Australians took a much more measured approach to run-scoring this summer. Smith’s own strike rate of 48.51 underlines this change of tack as much as David Warner’s 52.37 does.

    Smith registered three centuries, two of them while the series was still alive, and the biggest of all of them played a major part in Australia securing the series in Perth.

    His only real failure, if we can call it that, was the second Test in Adelaide, where he ‘only’ made 40 and 6. It’s a wonder he retained his place for Perth at all.

    The comparisons with Bradman were as free-flowing as they were apt. Bradman stood out from his contemporaries because he was that much better than the rest of them, and Smith has had that kind of series too.

    Smith’s 687 for the series was nearly 250 runs in advance of Shaun Marsh and Warner, and more than 300 runs clear of England’s Dawid Malan, skipper Joe Root, and former captain Alastair Cook.

    And so, in the ultimate case of pondering something that can never be confirmed one way or the other, how about this:

    Would Australia have won the Ashes at home without Smith?

    For one thing, Australia would have had a different captain, and that opens up a whole new can of worms. If Smith was to retire tomorrow, Warner would probably be skipper, but who’s next in line after him?

    A new batsman would also have to have been picked. Peter Handscomb is probably the obvious choice, given he’s remained with the side for the last three Tests, but he was already in the side for Brisbane. So it might have been Glenn Maxwell, it might even have been Mitch Marsh a fortnight earlier than he was recalled. Joe Burns made his big Sheffield Shield runs after the Brisbane Test had started, but he may have been in the frame, too.

    In fact, we’d probably have to conclude that Matt Renshaw was still in the frame, too, given that he was still Warner’s incumbent opening partner until the series began.

    For the sake of the argument, let’s assume Smith’s replacement managed to do 40 per cent as well as Smith did in the end. That still equates to around 275 runs for the series and probably still includes a couple of fifties.

    Cameron Bancroft was nominally the ‘worst’ of the Australian bats, and he finished with 179 runs for the series with one fifty, so 275 with two fifties seems about right for this exercise.

    So, would Australia have won? My gut feeling is only maybe.

    Smith was man of the match in Brisbane for his unbeaten first innings 141, but came to the wicket with Australia in a bit of trouble at 2-30 in the 11th over. The arbitrary 40 per cent threshold means our mystery player makes 56 – which in turn brings Australia’s total back to around 243, and our man would probably have been dismissed at some point.

    It also means England went in before tea on Day 3, but are also bowled out for 195 (as they were) sooner, leaving Australia to chase fewer than 100. The home side probably still win comfortably, but likely at the cost of Bancroft’s one and only Test fifty. Australia lead 1-0.

    Australian opening batsman Cameron Bancroft walks out of the dressing rooms to bat in Australia's second innings on Day 4 of the First Test match between Australia and England at the Gabba in Brisbane, Sunday, November 26, 2017.

    AAP Image/Dave Hunt

    In Adelaide, and remembering Smith ‘failed’, our man makes only 10 in the first innings and is probably the third wicket. Usman Khawaja was actually the third wicket in Adelaide, meaning he follows pretty closely after Not-Smith, leaving two new batsmen at the crease.

    We’re in genuine butterfly-effect territory now, but I’m not sure Handcomb-Shaun Marsh-Tim Paine do anywhere near as well as they did. Even if the tail wagged, Australia likely don’t declare at 440, but instead are bowled out closer to 360.

    England batted OK in their first dig to make 227, but then bowled superbly to roll Australia for 138 in their second innings. Smith only made 6, but our guy doesn’t get the full 40 per cent allowance here; it’s a duck instead. It means Australia probably don’t get to 139, which in turn means England aren’t chasing anywhere near the 354 they did, before being bowled out for 233. I’m calling it series-squared again.

    To Perth, where Smith made his highest Test score (239) after losing the toss, as Australia amassed their imposing 9(dec)-662, and Smith and Mitch Marsh put on 301 for the fifth wicket. Using our 40 per cent once again, our man Not-Smith instead is out in the 90s, and again, Australia are almost certainly bowled out for much less, maybe even as far back at ‘only’ 500.

    Which probably just means they don’t win by an innings, and instead have to chase around 110 or so. Australia 2-1.

    Then to Melbourne Test – would a draw still have been the outcome if Smith wasn’t there to make his first innings 76 and his crucial, match-saving 102*?

    If our man instead only manages 30 and 40, Australia may not get into a position to save the match after England made 491 in their first innings. Even more so when we recall how evenly things were poised when Warner and Shaun Marsh went within six overs of each other on the last day. If Australia are bowled out in that second innings, there’s time to chase a target.

    Which means in this entirely hypothetical exercise full of assumptions, guesswork, and arbitrary allowances, it’s all square going to Sydney.

    The only certainty now is that the garish, Australian flag-painted four-fingers sign most certainly wouldn’t have been needed!

    Does Australia still win after a loss in Melbourne? Could Australia have still hung on in Melbourne? And then what happens in Sydney?

    I’m not sure, but it’d make for a good pub discussion.

    Brett McKay
    Brett McKay

    Brett McKay is one of The Roar's good news stories and has been a rugby and cricket expert for the site since July 2009. Brett is an international and Super Rugby commentator for ABC Grandstand radio, has commentated on the Australian Under-20s Championships and National Rugby Championship live stream coverage, and has written for magazines and websites in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the UK. He tweets from @BMcSport.

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    The Crowd Says (55)

    • January 11th 2018 @ 5:46am
      Rob JM said | January 11th 2018 @ 5:46am | ! Report

      The only test where England were able to take 20 wickets was Adelaide where smith wasn’t a big contributor. A different Captain could have sent England back in.
      Non Smith might not of dropped 4 catches including cook in Melbourne..

      We could have easily won 5 nil, since a replacement batsman probably would have scored 1 or 2 centuries meaning we still would have scored at least 7 centuries to Englands 3.

      • January 11th 2018 @ 9:12am
        doogs said | January 11th 2018 @ 9:12am | ! Report

        There is “harsh” and then there is the level you took that to. Sheesh

    • January 11th 2018 @ 6:08am
      English twizz said | January 11th 2018 @ 6:08am | ! Report

      He stopped what could have been batting collapses as there was never any jitters after he battered and gave the rest confidence only time he failed in the 2nd innings in the 2nd test everyone else crumbled

    • January 11th 2018 @ 6:41am
      Christo the Daddyo said | January 11th 2018 @ 6:41am | ! Report

      A different player may well have caught Cook when he was on 66 in Melbourne…

      You know, seeing as we’re in ludicrous speculation land and all!

      • Columnist

        January 11th 2018 @ 9:18am
        Brett McKay said | January 11th 2018 @ 9:18am | ! Report

        Yes we are CtD, and that’s a perfectly valid point you raise.

        It’s sliding doors upon sliding doors, I readily admit, but it’s interesting to think about!

        • January 11th 2018 @ 11:56am
          Christo the Daddyo said | January 11th 2018 @ 11:56am | ! Report

          And the other thing we can’t possibly know is whether another player may well have stepped up in Smith’s absence…

    • January 11th 2018 @ 7:07am
      Maggie said | January 11th 2018 @ 7:07am | ! Report

      The ‘garish, Australian flag-painted four-fingers sign’ (or anything remotely like it) wasn’t needed whatever the final match tally. What a disgraceful piece of bragging. Whoever approved that should be sacked.

      • January 11th 2018 @ 8:43am
        Oingo Boingo said | January 11th 2018 @ 8:43am | ! Report

        I agree Maggie .
        I would have thought a convict , flogging an Englishman in stocks in the background would have been so much better .
        No imagination what so ever .

        • January 11th 2018 @ 10:51am
          Jan said | January 11th 2018 @ 10:51am | ! Report

          You mean an English convict of course!!!!!

          • January 11th 2018 @ 3:21pm
            Oingo Boingo said | January 11th 2018 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

            No , I was thinking more along the lines of an Irish convict , flogging an English aristocrat.

    • January 11th 2018 @ 7:30am
      Off The Long Run said | January 11th 2018 @ 7:30am | ! Report

      What if ‘Not-Smith’ took the catches Smith dropped?? Cook would have 60 in Melbs…

      • January 12th 2018 @ 12:07am
        DaveJ said | January 12th 2018 @ 12:07am | ! Report

        Only if you can think of any one in the team or a possible replacement more likely to take those difficult chances. You mean the one when Handscomb was standing up off Marsh – crikey, I don’t think you’ve seen much cricket. Only a Taylor, Waugh or G Chappell would be a strong chance to take that one.

    • January 11th 2018 @ 8:21am
      dangertroy said | January 11th 2018 @ 8:21am | ! Report

      I do find these what-if scenarios a little pointless. Obviously you change any variable and the entire series takes a different turn. It’s like all the speculation as to how Stokes would have done.
      If Smith didn’t play, we could have been talking about the glorious summer that Maxwell had.
      I actually think that the Australian team could do ok without Smith. But I’m in no hurry to find out whether that’s true or not.

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