Steve Smith’s Border-esque rebuild

When Steve Smith had his first taste of leading his country in Test cricket a little over 12 months ago, he probably allowed his mind to wander to a point in the future where he’d call that team his own.

Like children hitting suspended golf balls with a stump, or copying Glenn McGrath’s broad-chested approach to the wicket, or working on a flipper in the backyard, cricketers of almost every level daydream about captaining Australia.

Just how far into the future did Smith dream that day might come? Given it wasn’t that long ago that winning a place back in the team was his highest priority, you can’t imagine Smith saw any captaincy aspirations materialising so quickly.

While he mightn’t have known it, it was on his doorstep, readying to ring the bell.

By the time the Australian team returned home from its third consecutive Ashes series defeat in England, the team was Smith’s. The job in front of him was enormous.

The 2015 Ashes Tour would be the Baggy Green swansong for no less than five senior players: Ryan Harris before the Tests even started, skipper Michael Clarke, opener Chris Rogers, wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, and allrounder Shane Watson.

Two Tests into the Australian summer, those five were joined by tearaway fast bowler Mitchell Johnson.

365 Tests worth of experience had left the dressing room in little over four months.

At this point, Smith might have been excused for wondering what he’d got himself in for. Not since Allan Border took over from Kim Hughes – with two rebel tours to South Africa to follow – has the rebuild of the Australian cricket team loomed so large.

The Australian cricket team has handled the end of careers impressively for two decades. Long-serving players are given their plaudits and send-offs; new careers in the media or franchise Twenty20 tournaments materialise.

Not since Allan Border took over from Kim Hughes – with two rebel tours to South Africa to follow – has the rebuild of the Australian cricket team loomed so large

Occasionally they get it wrong, and the examples of Border himself, Ian Healy, and Jason Gillespie stand out. All three were good enough to play away on tour, but when the Australian team next reconvened on home soil, suddenly they went the way of cans of baked beans and Sydney-to-London consumption records.

Retirement by press release is never a good look.

But what has been managed well is generational change. In my lifetime, there had only been two major retirement ‘events’ in which multiple big names have departed the scene at the same time.

Back when I was a lad, it was a sad day to realise that I’d never watch Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell, and Rodney Marsh play in the Baggy Green again.

Two decades and a year or two later, it was much the same feeling when Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne called time, too, with Justin Langer in tow and with Damien Martin escaping out the side door during the Ashes series a few weeks earlier.

In both cases, the impact on the Australian team was both immediate and long-lasting. Several years of regeneration and rebuild followed for the Aussies to return to the top of the heap.

Steve Smith finds himself at the helm of a third major retirement event now, and the reno job ahead of him involves structural changes and a kitchen fit out, not just a patio addition and bathroom re-tile. It’s not quite a complete knock-down-rebuild, but it’s about as close as any Test captain would want it to get.

It’s Allan Border-esque, and Smith might be more suited to the role than he realises.

Australian batsmen Michael Clarke (R) and Steve Smith

Michael Clarke has handed over the reins to Steve Smith. (AAP Image/David Mariuz)

Brisbane, early November 2015. Australia has New Zealand 9/262 in their second innings and are on the verge of taking a 1-0 lead in the three-Test trans-Tasman Test series.

Mitchell Starc, in one of those brain explosion moments he is prone to having, regathers the ball in his follow-through from a Mark Craig forward defence. Starc, for whatever reason, hurls the ball back toward the Black Caps’ tail-end batsmen, despite Craig being well away from the stumps and not really attempting a run.

As the ball crosses the straight-ish fine leg boundary for four overthrows, the wide angle shot returns to second slip, where an incredibly frustrated captain stands with that oh-so-familiar hands-on-both-hips stance.

The skipper’s glare had directed away from the overthrown runs and toward his bowler, who in his first moment of clear thinking in that instant, had turned away and walked back to his bowling mark.

Starc escaped the glare, but not his skipper’s wrath in the post-match press conference.

“I thought it was pretty disappointing. He’s done it a few times,” Smith said after the Test of the incident. Starc was fined $7000 from his match fee, but that was nothing compared to the televised and much-vaunted greasy stare, or the public roasting from his skipper.

But after Smith had only a day earlier reacted somewhat angrily after a Nathan Lyon wicket, the Starc flashpoint had given rise to something much more interesting.

Australian cricket suddenly had a new ‘Captain Grumpy’.

The starts of the Border and Smith eras share several common links: a team in decline after a period of strength; bulk retirements that threaten to leave the team vastly inexperienced, and a potential for player turnover.

The Australian team of the late 1970s and early 1980s was still reorganising itself after the two seasons of World Series Cricket, but whether wearing the actual Baggy Green or Kerry Packer’s gold cap, the players were still playing; still making runs and still taking wickets against the best players at the time.

But when Border took over from Hughes midway through the 1984/1985 season, members of the Australian team were becoming well used to having their arse handed to them by the West Indies. The 1985 Ashes Tour to England was rocked by the withdrawal of senior players heading instead to South Africa, and the forced rebuild was on in earnest.

Over the next few years, some very promising names were introduced into the Australian team – some of them ahead of their time. A least three of these players, Stephen Waugh, Healy and Mervyn Hughes, would go on to become greats of the game.

The team Border handed onto Mark Taylor was ready to rule the world, and the subsequent handovers to Waugh and Ricky Ponting were of teams at the top of their game, carrying on unaffected by the change in leadership.

After the aforementioned departures of Warne and McGrath, Ponting had to undertake a brief re-charting of the course back to the top, though the retirements of Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden were much less damaging. When Clarke took over from Ponting after the lost 2010/2011 Ashes Series, future success for the team wasn’t that far away at all.

Steve Smith has started his full-time tenure with a series win over New Zealand and a clean sweep against a West Indies side woefully lacking anything resembling world class.

His side remains one in transition, however, and we will have to wait until it tests itself against South Africa, India, and England – and especially playing away to those countries – before we really know where Smith’s team will rank. Smith’s team could hold the world in its hand, or it could follow the path well-trodden in recent years: hometown heroes, but also-rans abroad.

After the failed Ashes Tour, some welcome buzzwords were uttered. “If we pick young guys we just have to stick with them a bit and ride the wave,” Australian coach Darren Lehmann said, admitting that as selectors, they needed to allow players time to find their feet and show their worth.

It’s a notion that more than a few state players in the early Border years would certainly have welcomed.

By the midway point of the summer, that ‘pick and stick’ mantra would be staunchly tested, with injury absences and high-quality performance by replacements meaning the selectors simply could not fit everyone into the XI when fit.

Behind the Test bats, the players earmarked as ‘next in line’ have had varying degrees of First Class success, while the state batsmen genuinely piling on the runs get precious little airtime in discussions.

Though the depth looks impressive in theory, that perceived strength might actually be an illusion undermined by prejudgements; an illusion also quickly found out by the onset of a few injuries.

This proved to be the case among bowling stocks, with the sudden retirement of Mitchell Johnson and would-be spearhead Mitchell Starc untimely ruled out for the rest of the Australian summer.


Steve Smith (Photo DAVE HUNT, AAP)

Suddenly, Australia’s bowling attack was built around a young quick who the selectors don’t think can get through six Tests in an Australia summer without a rest. There was a Victorian workhorse who wasn’t sure he’d ever wear the Baggy Green again in the month leading into the game, and a younger, quicker Victorian quick who had just undergone a significant action rebuild and admitted he could break down at any point.

Behind them are numerous sets of impressive First Class bowling numbers, but varying reasons for their overlooking are easily found: too slow, too expensive, not angry enough, not enough sleeve tattoos.

And when selectors are making reasons not to pick performing state players, the illusion of depth suddenly becomes clearer and more alarming.

Border had to deal with this same problem when he first took over, and the start of Smith’s captaincy journey also coincides with the end of another ‘superstar’ era.

Taylor, Waugh, Ponting, and Clarke could all call on genuine match winners within their sides, and the names read like a roll call of bedroom posters through the ages: Boon, Hughes, McGrath, Warne, the Waughs, Hayden, Lee, Gilchrist, Johnson, Hussey, Harris. Even Ponting and Clarke themselves.

Smith will have David Warner, and his own classy game, but very little else in the way of a match winner.

And the trade-off of the lack of match winners is the nervous anxiety that comes with young players trying to cement themselves in the side. Smith will know this; you really don’t have to go back too many seasons to find one SPD Smith playing for his place in the national squad, worrying whether being earmarked as a blonde kid who could bowl leggies would hurt his aspiration of cracking centuries in the Baggy Green.

Taylor, Waugh, Ponting, and Clarke could all call on genuine match winners within their sides, and the names read like a roll call of bedroom posters through the ages

Even if the depth is significantly shallower than it’s perceived to be, this nervous anxiety means that Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja, the Marsh brothers, Peter Siddle, James Pattinson and anyone on the periphery will still be playing with one eye looking over their shoulder.

Adam Voges’ 2015/2016 form is such that he can now play out the end of his international days on his own terms while wicketkeeper Peter Nevill’s solid start to Test cricket and an evident lack of competition of an equal standard for his place means he’s similarly safe.

Nathan Lyon is the leading Australian offspinner in the history of the game, and a very consistent career that is now beyond 50 Tests has finally worn down the few remaining questions regarding his place in the side. Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood look like they will be the mainstays of the attack going forward, whenever they can stay fit.

So when Smith is needing to call on his players to play out of their skin on any given day in the next 12 or so months, he must know that around half the team will have in the back of their mind that if they fail, the pressure on their position mounts.

It means that this period of rebuilding could again lead to a turnover of players.

When Mitchell Johnson retired, he was the last of the Australian Test player numbers in the 300s. 398, to be precise, with his debut coming against Brisbane in 2007/2008. Chris Rogers was 399, and Brad Haddin 400. Peter Siddle now holds the lowest number of any current Australia player, 403, and Smith follows at 415.

A glance up and down the list of debut numbers gives an idea of just how stable the Australian team was for the best part of two decades.

Work backwards from Haddin’s 2008 debut, and the previous 25 Australian players go all the way back to NSW tweaker Gavin Robertson’s 1997/1998 debut against India in Chennai. That’s 25 debutants in just over ten years. The previous 25 players again track back to one SK Warne at no.350, in Sydney in 1991/1992.

When Mitchell Johnson retired, he was the last of the Australian Test player numbers in the 300s

Forward from Haddin’s debut, the next 25 players came in just three-and-a-half years; Starc (425) debuted with Pattinson (424) and Warner (426) in the 2011/2012 Brisbane Test. It’s a similar timeframe forward to the current wave of debutants: Voges (442) and Nevill (443) coming in 2015.

So while 50 players debuted in a bit over 18 years from the end of the Border reign to roughly three-quarters the way through Ponting, another 43 players have debuted in the seven years since Haddin.

If dominance brings stability, then perhaps it’s time to ready ourselves for a period of selection volatility in the coming years.

Smith does, at least, have one significant advantage over Border, as he embarks on this rebuild, in that Cricket Australia is in a much better financial state than was the case in the mid-1980s.

I have an endearing memory of Allan Border sitting on a balcony somewhere during the 1993 Ashes Tour of England, wearing that ever-present yellow XXXX visor and what Australian rugby legend Tim Horan confirmed for me recently was one of his early Wallabies jerseys. A player wouldn’t even entertain the thought of wearing their favourite football team’s jersey in the change rooms these days.

Until the early-90s, when the commercial benefits of replica kit were discovered, players were lucky to get even just an Australian Cricket Board (as they were then known) polo shirt. Any sponsor apparel – like AB’s much-loved and well-travelled visor – was very much a matter of whatever the sponsors could muster.

Allan Border in his XXXX jacket and with a bit of beard.

Allan Border in his XXXX jacket and with a bit of beard. That’s captain grumpy (Photo: Archives New Zealand. – Flickr)

Sponsorships at the time were more relaxed, but also required more of the players; it’s hard to imagine a current Australian cricketer repeating Merv Hughes’ iconic XXXX ad appearance, with beer froth dripping from his legendary mo’.

In his 1989 Ashes Tour diary, Border revealed he quite enjoyed the novel concept of flying to England in Business Class for the first time ever; “I liked the sound of Business Class. I thought it was fitting; ‘Aussies means business’ had a nice ring to it,” he wrote in Ashes Glory, his account of that historic tour that marked the arrival of his team in Test Cricket.

Now, Qantas is entrenched as the ‘Official Airline of Cricket Australia’, which it also extends out to naming rights of overseas tours. Business Class is the norm, and twin share hotel rooms have given way for quality apartment-style accommodation.

In this day of near nine-figure profits, though, nothing that might help the team win is out of the question.

In Border’s time, it was the senior players and newly-minted coach Bob Simpson who would iron out technical issues. Specialist batting and bowling coaches were unheard of, and though team managers had always been around, physios and doctors and the like generally only accompanied overseas tours.

Nowadays, Darren Lehmann’s off-field team comprises a specialist batting, bowling, and fielding assistant coaches, a doctor, a physiotherapist, a psychologist, a strength and conditioning coach, a performance analyst, a team manager, logistics manager, a media manager, and a whole team looking after social media, video, and online content.

Indeed, the whole off-field team is now known as the ‘Bupa Support Team’, complete with corporate backing – and all the brand emblazonment that comes with it – after health fund Bupa elected during the off-season to move its commercial partnership money away from the Sheffield Shield and toward the new $29 Million National Cricket Centre (the ‘Bupa NCC’, if you will) located, coincidently, at the Allan Border Field in Brisbane.

If a player in Smith’s team has an issue now, there are all manner of resources available to rectify the situation, be it technical, physical, or indeed, mental.

Border maintains to this day that he got everything he possibly could have out of his natural talent and work ethic, but you do wonder how good a player he might have become, or how good his team might have become were he playing now with all the modern trimmings?

Peter Siddle claims a hatrick in an Ashes Test at the Gabba.

Not quick enough, Pete. (AP Photo/Tertius Pickard)

Teams rebuilding is nothing new in Test cricket. Even since Border retired from the game, every other team in the world has had to go through the same sort of regeneration, and some countries have done it several times under several captains. Indeed, some countries have done it several times under the same captain.

Australia was never going to be immune to this, and if anything, it’s a wonder it’s been avoided for as long as it has. Ponting went through something of a rebuild post-Warne-McGrath-Langer-Hayden-Gilchrist, but unlike Ponting then, Smith doesn’t have senior and established players like Clarke, Hussey, Haddin, Johnson, and Harris to call on. The likes of Burns, Khawaja, Marsh, Nevill, Lyon, and Hazlewood don’t yet carry the same gravitas and the previous roll call.

The rebuild looks easy now, of course, in a summer featuring a closer-than-the-scoreboard-reads series against New Zealand and a very lacklustre West Indies, but there will be times in the next year or so when Australia loses a Test series it wouldn’t have lost in the recent past. The World Twenty20 and tours to New Zealand and South Africa loom ominously.

Inevitably, the search for a scapegoat will be on, and while a young, rebuilding team might be spared, it might not necessarily be the case for coach Darren Lehmann.

Already, Lehmann has nailed his colours to the post with his declaration that Australian fast bowlers must be regularly topping 140km/h; a policy that has had Peter Siddle, languishing just shy of 200 Test wickets, beginning to wonder if ‘former Test player’ was a label that applied to him. It may apply soon enough anyway, once 140 practitioners Starc and Pat Cummins return to full fitness.

The policy also means that worthy practitioners of the bowling craft at Sheffield Shield level are being, and will continue to be, seemingly ignored outright. Strike rates and economy at First Class level mean nothing if the second number on the speed gun isn’t a four as a minimum.

And that’s fine that a coach would want to develop a blueprint playing the game at International level, but that blueprint is immediately limited if you exclude a sizable chunk of your talent pool.

The ability of batsmen to play the moving ball remains a primary concern; a deficiency that was laid to bare in England during the 2015 Ashes Tour. Smith’s double century at Lord’s and Chris Rogers’ haul of 480 runs at 60.0 in a bowlers’ series were the highlights in an otherwise unflattering show reel of hard hands, immovable feet, and chronic impatience.

Every failure to adapt to conditions, particularly in overseas conditions, must fall at the feet of the coach.

Lehmann is great for a sound bite in the media, and he certainly has a good record of motivating players and improving team cultures from his vast playing experience, but what about his technical coaching nous?

What are Greg Blewett’s credentials to be an international fielding coach, other than being a very good fielder in his playing days? And if he is so well credentialed, why is fielding extraordinaire Mike Young still needed for short term consultancies?

Bowling coach Craig McDermott had the quicks bowling fuller lengths when he came on board five seasons ago, so as to maximise the opportunity of the ball to swing. It worked to devastating effect in the home series against India in 2011/2012, yet the Australian attack consistently fails to extract anything in the way of swing and seam movement in English conditions.

As head coach, these are all questions for which Lehmann is ultimately responsible.

How much do we know about Smith as a captain yet? Certainly in his opening foray in the job, he appears to employ a similar attacking preference to his predecessors, but does he really have the ‘cattle’ to be able to play that way?

It was easy for Clarke, Ponting, Waugh, and Taylor to play aggressively; they all had the players to back their instincts as captains. But even attacking captains need to play pragmatically on occasion, and the question as to whether Smith declared too late in Melbourne against India was asked more than once. The same question might have applied for the Perth Test against New Zealand this season, too.

Early declarations were a luxury that Border certainly didn’t have, not while he was enduring the aforementioned thumpings from the Windies anyway, and Smith would be excused for conservatism around declarations as his team looks to establish itself. There will always be elements of chance and opportunism with declarations, but it will be interesting to observe Smith’s instincts in the coming years. Captains are judged by their assertive declarations in modern cricket, and Smith won’t always have all the trumps in his hand when playing top teams.

Australian cricket captain, Michael Clarke, along with former captains, Ricky Ponting, Steve Waugh and Allan Border

A roll-call of captains went before Steve Smith. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

Allan Border at least had six years and 63 Tests by the time he inherited the captaincy from Kim Hughes, but Steven Smith finds himself learning how to be Australian captain at the same time he’s learning how to be a senior player within his side.

The Boxing Day Test this summer was Smith’s 38th, with all but five coming in the last three years since his March 2013 recall to the side.

The captaincy had little impact on Border’s personal game, maintaining that consistent 50-51 average for the rest of his playing days. On an admittedly small sample it seems the © next the Smith’s name on the team sheet is sending his game to new heights, already adding 14 to his average while he’s been skipper.

Smith should retain a superior winning percentage to Border as captain over time, but Smith won’t have to worry about as many quality opponents as Border did.

When Border undertook his rebuild, Australia was very much a middle of the road side, surrounded by teams who could genuinely beat anyone. 75 of Border’s 93 Tests as captain came against England, New Zealand, India, and the West Indies, and he led Australia in only one three-Test series home and away against each of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. He never played against Zimbabwe or Bangladesh.

Border drew more Tests than he won against New Zealand, India, the West Indies, and Pakistan as captain, while his win and draw records against Sri Lanka and South Africa were level.

When Border undertook his rebuild, Australia was very much a middle of the road side, surrounded by teams who could genuinely beat anyone

Smith is yet to lose a Test at this early stage of his tenure, but whether this remains the case depends entirely on how successful the rebuild is.

Though Smith awkwardly laughs off suggestions that he is already walking down a famous path of leadership, those spotfire moments this summer, and an already well-developed look of annoyance show that he leads his team as much by emotion as instinct, and possesses an excellent ‘cricket brain’.

Given the size of the rebuild he’s undertaking, it’s fitting, then, that Darren Lehmann has revealed this summer that Smith is already known within the change room as ‘Captain Grumpy’. It might just take another grumpy captain to take this team to a sustained stint at the top.

Comments (55)

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  • Ronan O'Connell said | January 7th 2016 @ 6:59am

    Cracking read Brett, great stuff!

  • Tom Cahill said | January 7th 2016 @ 8:08am

    Nice piece Brett, looks good in the new Medium-esque page design.

    • Tom Cahill said | January 7th 2016 @ 3:07pm

      The picture you paint is a pretty realistic one: Smith is going to hit a few speedbumps, and he and this team will collapse in a series in the next 12 months, and people will be unnecessarily outraged. Whether it happens against NZ, SA or a good Pakistan side it’s impossible to say, but when it does the bubble will pop and our home summer stability will be long forgotten by people ready to push the panic button.

      In terms of our future batting, outside of Smith and Warner, who can we throw out there as a possible future superstar? Usman is the real deal, but whether he will average around 50 is another question.

      • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 3:51pm

        That’s the great, anxious unknown, isn’t it Tom. How Australia’s rebuild goes alongside South Africa’s evidently required rebuild will be intriguing to observe.

        I think Mitchell Marsh, interestingly enough is possible future superstar. I think he can, in time, become that genuine no.6 bat/140kph bowler that Shane Watson never quite nailed down, but on current evidence, it’s also clear why that view might be seen as optimistic..

  • The Bush said | January 7th 2016 @ 8:12am

    Great read Brett.

    Just a bit of a rant about Clarke…

    You said this: When Clarke took over from Ponting after the lost 2010/2011 Ashes Series, future success for the team wasn’t that far away at all.

    I find this statement amazing. To me it seems like a hell of a lot of revisionist history. Clarke took over a team that was in complete disarray (in my opinion):

    1. All the greats had retired;

    2. Katich, one of the only performers, had been dropped forever (whether that was Clarke’s fault/choice we’ll never know);

    3. Mitchell Johnson who had just played a horrible Ashes, was about to enter a period in the wilderness;

    4. Shane Watson, who should have been a key player for him, would basically spend the rest of his career injured or floating from 1 to 6 in the order;

    5. Brad Haddin’s form from 2011 onwards would be so abysmal he’d be dumped for Wade and even on his return only ever had one good series (the Ashes 2013/14);

    6. No recognised spinner (Lyon debuted under Clarke); and

    7. Ponting himself who’s refusal to retire fully, but not to bat at first drop, left Clarke with a declining player taking up a key spot in the batting order for a young player.

    Like Smith, he only had one world class player (other than himself) to call upon, being Hussey.

    Added to this, Ponting had just presided over our worst World Cup performance in decades (whilst Smith inherits the world’s premier ODI side, by some margin, who are champs). Additionally, as you’ve pointed out, the current world climate is much more forgiving for Smith’s side. Clarke inherited side that had to play against a very capable and dominant England and a supreme South Africa. In contrast South Africa is presently a team in decline (if not shambles) and England is also rebuilding.

    That we would unearth Harris (who only debuted in 2010), Johnson would find his mojo again, that Lyon would develop into a classy spinner and Smith and Warner themselves would emerge as great batsmen on the space of two and a half years could hardly have been foreseen. Clarke had his faults, but time will tell who had the more poisoned chalice when they took over.

    Having said the above, I totally agree with the rest of the article, I pray that Smith is a Border reincarnate and that he takes this young side to the top of the world and builds a platform of success like we enjoyed through the 90s and 2000s. I certainly think it’s possible.

    • JohnB said | January 7th 2016 @ 9:32am

      You’re absolutely right that Australia post those Ashes was a shambles and Clarke’s role and position shouldn’t be retrospectively downplayed.

    • Pope Paul VII said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:32am

      I reckon the Argus Report, combined with Clarke and Arthur as selectors, significantly delayed Australia’s rebuild.

      • The Bush said | January 7th 2016 @ 11:10am

        I agree that Clarke should never have been a selector and Arthur was a horrible coach/selector.

        Whether Australia could have rebuilt quicker, who can say, but certainly the chopping and changing of young batsmen did us no favours.

      • Andrew said | January 9th 2016 @ 11:18am

        Arthur in particular really bought Khawaja down who is now our long term 3 and is all class, really proud of smith and Warner and they are being coached well by boof

    • Kaks said | January 7th 2016 @ 3:19pm

      Spot on.

      I feel that enough people dont see how great of a job Clarke did. He single handedly carried our team for a period before the coming of age of the team during the ashes whitewash.

      People forget that the poms thought they would win that series 5-0 themselves as we looked that bad.

    • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 3:58pm

      Thanks for the comment Bushy. Everything you point out there is certainly true, but the reaction – or over-reaction – after a lost Ashes series is always a little more Henny Penny-like than how things actually play out.

      I don’t want to turn this into a discussion about Clarke, and it certainly wasn’t my intention to downplay what he did with his side (I’m still not sure I have, but concede that different people will interpret things differently); rather, to outline the magnitude of what’s in front of Smith..

      • The Bush said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:21pm

        No doubt Brett, like I said, great article and I certainly didn’t mean to hijack it. I suppose the way Clarke was treated when he retired and the endless praising of how great Smith was going to be, the new team etc, left a bad taste in my mouth.

        If Smith is to leaving a lasting legacy, it won’t be on these shores, but by virtue of success overseas. It is no coincidence that when we were the best side in the world, the most memorable series took place overseas, as this was where the real challenges lie (’95 Windies, ’04 India, ’05 Ashes in England). If he can build a side capable of winning away, he’ll have one hell of an achievement to take pride in.

        • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:45pm

          No doubt at all, on your last point here.

          I just want to go back to the original statement you pointed out, “When Clarke took over from Ponting after the lost 2010/2011 Ashes Series, future success for the team wasn’t that far away at all.”

          I certainly take all your points, but this is where I was coming from – they literally did achieve success in a pretty short timeframe: under Clarke, Australia won three of the next five series it played in the space of about 15 months.

          And yes, Smith has started with two series’ wins from two, but whether that success rate remains is the bigger question. But again, thanks for valid discussion..

          • The Bush said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:45pm

            No doubt Australia still found some success Brett, but again so has Smith so far and, again, no one could have foreseen any success when Clarke took over. Just because it turned out okay doesn’t mean it didn’t look grim.

            As others have said, I think perhaps Smith could end up being a bit more like Taylor, a guy who inherited a decent, but young outfit and Clarke might be remembered as the guy who captained during the bad years (we certainly had some crushing results under Clarke – lowest scores in a century, first home loss to NZD in decades, whitewash in India, two failed Ashes campaigns).

            • Brett McKay said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:41pm

              Bushy, we’re only going to go around in circles here, so I won’t go on.

              Any downplaying as you’ve interpreted was certainly not intentional..

    • Sam Brown said | January 7th 2016 @ 7:45pm

      Agreed. Those were dark days and I think Clarke deserves a lot more credit than he gets for how he led the team through that.

      A lot of the time it felt like he was the only reliable batsmen in the team.

      If nothing else his handling of Lyon has seen us finally nail down a regular, reliable spinner. Despite the selector’s and media’s attempts to try and supplant him at various times Clarke’s continued confidence in him has allowed him to blossom into the reliable, senior player he is now.

  • spruce moose said | January 7th 2016 @ 8:40am

    Great read Brett. It’s great to see the roar move towards this type of literature. Compelling, stimulating and certainly enough to provide great spirited debate.

    I do find myself in the same position as ‘The Bush’ though. I don’t think I can recall any literature in 2011 that suggested Clarke had a team where future success was imminent. I have to agree that that is a very revisionist, and ultimately incorrect statement.

    Aside from all the reasons The Bush listed, the following questions MUST be asked from your claim

    1. If future success was imminent, why the need for a review of cricket in Australia when Clarke came on board?
    2. Why were most of the recommendations of the Argus review – designed to bring Australia back to number 1 – not taken?
    3. If future success was imminent, why did Australia consistently seek to repopulate the team with 30+ players, or retain 30+ stars. Ponting, Hussey, Haddin, Rogers, Harris. The desperate need to retain people like Hussey and Ponting suggests that the establishment genuinely feared the ability of the next generation to replace them.
    4. Was Clarke’s era as captain (in test cricket) ever successful anyway? On rankings alone, the team slipped to 5th under his watch, and in the brief few months in 2014 when they were the number 1 side, they weren’t playing any cricket. He twice lost in England, he was unable to even draw a match in India. While he won in South Africa, he also lost to them here. He goes down in history as having one of the worst away records of any Australian captain ever.

    In fact, I can remember quite vividly people saying that Clarke wasn’t ever going to have the same level of success as the Waugh and Ponting era’s and that we should re-evaluate our expectations of the Australian team.

    Until the arrival of Smith, Clarke was holding the batting line up with the most fragile piece of string. Much like in the 80’s that if Border ever went, so did the team, much could be said of Clarke in 2012-2013.

    Smith is more like Taylor, the man at the cusp of developing a team of true greatness. The lucky thing for Smith is that he will be captain long enough to bask in the greatness too.

    • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:06pm

      Cheers Spruce, and thanks for taking the time you have.

      I’ll some up your first couple of questions there by making the same point as I have above, that reactions after a lost Ashes series tend to be rather hyperbolic. I actually thought a lot of the Argus report made sense, for what it’s worth, so why much of it was ignored is beyond me. And a lot of player retention questions could as easily be put down to panicked selectors, too, of which Clarke was not one initially.

      Again, I don’t want to turn this into a Clarke thing, but I think his reign certainly has to be seen as successful. He lost only 7 of 47 Tests as Captain, and even with a 51% win rate, his team ascended back to the top fairly swiftly. Winning back the Ashes 5-0 tends to help things, too..

      • spruce moose said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:30pm

        Hi brett


        Don’t want to be too pedantic, but he lost a fair few more than 7 tests. He lost 7 alone against England, a few against south africa, 4 against india, one or two against pakistan…

        • The Bush said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:39pm

          He lost 16 and drew 7 for a 51% winning ratio.

          No doubt we seemed to recover quickly, but you’re saying that with hindsight Brett, that’s the whole point of my comment – it’s revisionist thinking. The challenges we faced were immense and in many ways far harder than Smith’s (perhaps).

  • Will Sinclair said | January 7th 2016 @ 9:31am

    Lovely read – thanks.

    It’s a genuinely interesting time for Australian Test cricket, isn’t it? There seems to be a young troupe of fast bowlers emerging, around whom a team can be built, but the batting is genuinely shallow… And T20 seems likely to keep dominating the domestic scene.

    Very interesting times indeed.

  • Christo the Daddyo said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:17am

    Excellent article – well done!

    One question about this statement:

    “Border maintains to this day that he got everything he possibly could have out of his natural talent and work ethic, but you do wonder how good a player he might have become, or how good his team might have become were he playing now with all the modern trimmings?”

    Perhaps – but there’s an argument that all the off field mollycoddling is detrimental to the development of players as capable adults too. Maybe AB wouldn’t have been the great leader he was if his team had so much support structure in place?

    • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:08pm

      Cheers Christo.

      And it’s a fair point you raise about Border, though I’d say in response that the article was long enough without adding every possibility to every rhetorical question!

  • Ryan O'Connell said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:26am

    Nice piece, mate. I really enjoy the longer format for more thought-out opinions such as these.

  • john said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:28am

    not sure about the format. You seemend to repeat yourself a bit.

    • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:09pm

      That’s the point of the long format John, to tie in all the sub-themes and keep the central thesis flowing..

  • JGK said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:39am

    Ooh, I like this new format.

    Very classy.

    • JGK said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:42am

      Strange – I can’t seem to edit in this new format.

      What I was going to add, pedantically, is that it’s Martyn, not Martin.

      • Rob McLean said | January 7th 2016 @ 12:47pm

        And, pedantically, Siddle now has his 200 scalps.
        Great read. Nice to have some long-form stuff.

      • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 2:02pm

        Sadly JGK, I can’t make the correction, either! It’s my error, and apologies for it, but we’ll just have to call it as addressed..

  • Pottsy said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:48am

    Like the new format. Do have to agree with The Bush regarding Clarke but thanks for the article.

  • Worlds Biggest said | January 7th 2016 @ 10:59am

    Great read Macca, I think Smith will be a fine leader. This squad has the makings of a really good one, however the away form has to be addressed starting in NZ.

  • Don Freo said | January 7th 2016 @ 11:41am

    A nice little walk through fond and familiar times. I do agree with a couple if comments that Clarke did a top job stabilizing things when he took over. At that time there seemed to be forces pulling in a range of different directions and Clarke was prepared to sacrifice popularity in order to establish sound cricket process.

    I think it is a real stretch to characterize Smith as another Captain Grumpy. His seems to be a chirpy, happy team enjoying a journey. That, probably, is mostly due to Boof and his ethic.

    • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:11pm

      As I’ve said above Don, I don’t think I’ve said anything suggesting Clarke didn’t do a good job..

  • TheCunningLinguistic said | January 7th 2016 @ 12:31pm

    Good read, Brett, and I enjoy the new format! Although now I am running quite late for work… 🙂

    • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:11pm

      I’m blaming the editor for insisting on the extra 3000 words…

  • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 12:53pm

    Thanks for the comments thus far, and very glad to read I didn’t lose too many of you along the way.

    This piece, as you can probably imagine, was a lengthy work-in-progress over a number of weeks in December, which then led to a pretty intense editing process with Paddy that only wrapped up earlier this week.

    It’s comfortably the most involved and longest sports feature article I’ve written; more than twice the length of a typical magazine feature. Even thinking back to University, it might be the longest essay or article I’ve written in my life!

    So my sincere thanks go to Paddy and The Roar for giving me the opportunity to tackle the long-read format, and certainly to Paddy for his editorial assistance along the way. Once you take into account the layout and sourcing the images, he’s easily put as much time into the final product as I have.

    There are some really good questions posed already, too, and I’ll come back to them over the course of the afternoon..

    • Tom Cahill said | January 7th 2016 @ 3:16pm

      How many words is it Brett?

      • Brett McKay said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:14pm

        I had to go back and do a word count Tom, but my final submitted draft (which isn’t too different to what’s been published) was 3904 words. Think it went into a 7th page in Word..

        • Ryan Buckland said | January 7th 2016 @ 4:33pm

          That’s long. And that’s coming from me!

  • Daws said | January 7th 2016 @ 2:39pm

    Great read Brett, really enjoyed the insights and comparisons from the AB years

  • Craig Swanson said | January 7th 2016 @ 3:53pm

    Smith has taken to the test captaincy like..well…a duck to water. A seamless transition despite Pup retiring too soon. Sure Smithy would have had liked him to hand around a while longer to settle him in. Being the leader has not curtailed his hunger for runs. This bloke has nerves of steel. Seems to thrive on the added responsibility.

  • ntn001 said | January 8th 2016 @ 1:26am

    Mervyn Hughes? A legend of the game? Who are you kidding? He was a fat trundling workhorse who’s revered by bogans and Victorians.

    Legend of the pub more like.

    • Brett McKay said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:32pm

      Be that as it may, that “fat trundling workhorse” has only 11 people in front of him on the Australian Test Wickets list.

      Whether you revere him or not, the term ‘great of the game’ certainly applies to him, and one I’m more than happy to stand by..

  • Allanthus said | January 8th 2016 @ 8:14am

    Brett, sorry I missed this yesterday, an excellent piece, and once again beautifully presented in this format.

    What impresses me most about Smith is that he really came into cricket as a leggie who could bat a bit, but he has continued to improve so much as a batsman, all the way to the top of the world rankings. The application required to do that will hold him in good stead as a captain.

    Negatives are that, at the moment, he reacts to boundaries and goes on the defensive too quickly, and his TV acting is absolutely tishhouse.

    • Brett McKay said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:34pm

      For all the issues you have with Smith’s acting, I can only point you to the work of Messrs Clarke, Ponting, and Taylor as proof that it won’t necessarily improve in retirement, either!

      Thanks for the post though mate, certainly appreciate you taking the time to get through it all..

  • Diggercane said | January 8th 2016 @ 9:03am

    Thanks Brett, really enjoyed the read.

  • Atawhai Drive said | January 8th 2016 @ 9:57am

    Outstanding piece, Brett. After a couple of false starts, I finally exerted a bit of self-discipline to read it at one sitting, and was well rewarded.

    Well done to The Roar, too, for initiating and persisting with the long-form pieces, which are helped along by good design.

    That picture of a bearded AB in his yellow XXXX jacket . . . was that taken in Wellington by any chance?

    • Brett McKay said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:37pm

      Cheers AD, and I certainly agree with the point on format and design. I know I’d have a lot of trouble getting through 3900 words if presented in the regular format.

      On the picture, I couldn’t say. Once I sent the final draft, it’s all Paddy after that point. Being from the NZ Archives means it could well be Wellington..

      • Allanthus said | January 9th 2016 @ 7:39am

        AD, Brett, it’s Wellington for sure, and if I’m not mistaken the “hanger on” with AB is none other than the Hon David Lange, NZ PM.
        A rather slim line version, it must have been after he had his stomach staple surgery and had lost a stack of weight.
        If the camera had panned around a wee bit further you’d be able to see Digger wagging school with a few of his mates.

  • Billy said | January 8th 2016 @ 10:59am

    Good article but I think you underplay Lyons influence on the team. I would also have made him e Vice Captain as I fear that Warner will have another brain explosion in the near future.

    • Brett McKay said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:40pm

      Billy, I do agree with you on Lyon as a VC, as it happens. I think it’s already pretty clear that he’s a leader within the team.

      On the downplaying business, I’ll just say the same thing as I’ve said above, regarding supposedly downplaying Clarke’s captaincy: being a long-form feature on Steve Smith means that I’m not going to go into details about every other player mentioned. Any downplaying as you may have interpreted was certainly not intentional..

      • The Bush said | January 8th 2016 @ 4:50pm

        Lyon would have likely made a decent VC.

        He has some draw backs though, one being a bowler (not preferred by Aus selectors), but more importantly he basically only plays Test Cricket at the moment. Whether you think Warner should be playing all forms (especially ODI) cricket, he is selected in all of them so is a very useful VC in that regard.

        • Pope Paul VII said | January 8th 2016 @ 5:10pm

          Remember in 80s when the VC possie was the kiss of death?

  • Ironmonger said | January 11th 2016 @ 7:56am

    A bit of a stretch comparing the two. Border enabled and drove a complete cult ru change in and around the team that was based on ruthless competitiveness ( and hence the Grumpy tag – no more mister nice guy). Smith has a few new faces coming through at a time he takes over.

    One question…is that Harold from Neighbours with AB in the photo of AB in gold trackie top?