England’s 2005 Ashes team ball tampered, their former captain Mike Atherton ball tampered and another ex-skipper, Michael Vaughan, has suggested both James Anderson and Stuart Broad were involved in ball tampering.
Any concerns about Steve Smith’s form, fitness and ability to adapt to a new batting role have evaporated over the past three weeks as the former Australian skipper has made a sparkling return to high level cricket.
Yesterday Smith was again Australia’s standout batsman in their practice match against the West Indies in England, cruising to 76 as his side registered an ever-so-easy seven wicket win.
That was the 29-year-old’s third consecutive half century for Australia and gives him a haul of 278 runs at an average of 139 since he returned to the national side this month.
Smith has had to regain his touch in 50-over cricket, having not played the format for 15 months before his return. He’s also had to overcome a serious elbow injury and adapt to batting lower in the order than he is used to.
Having built an imposing record at number three in ODIs, Smith looks set to bat at four in the World Cup.
This change could be brought about by the impressive combination built at the top of the order by Aaron Finch and Usman Khawaja. The selectors appear keen not to break up that partnership, with regular opener David Warner and Smith both moving down one position in the order.
I had misgivings about Smith’s capacity to flourish in the middle order, as did many Australian fans.
He has always appeared best suited to anchoring an ODI innings from first drop, rather than the more dynamic approach sometimes required of a number four. I was unsure whether he could score swiftly enough to push the game along should he come to the crease in the middle overs.
So far, so good. Smith has batted at four in two of the recent practice matches, at five in one of them and first drop in another, maintaining a good strike rate of 95 across those four matches.
Prior to his one-year ban due to the ball tampering scandal, Smith had a dawdling strike rate of just 83 across his previous 30 ODIs.
That equates to a scoring rate of just 4.98 runs per over, which is not acceptable is this high-scoring era of ODI cricket. By comparison, a strike rate of 95 would be fine for a player of Smith’s consistency.
It will be intriguing to see in the World Cup whether Smith’s heavy recent exposure to T20 cricket, which demands more aggressive batting, will have helped him expand his strokeplay.
Since Smith played his last ODI, in January 2018, he has taken part in 27 matches in T20 leagues across the world, from Canada to the Caribbean, Bangladesh and India. In those matches the nature of the shortest format pressured Smith to take the game on more than comes naturally.
The Australian always has been adept at turning over the strike by piercing gaps and running hard.
These attributes remain valuable in ODI cricket. But boundaries have become more important than ever in the 50-over format, such has been the impact of the transference of T20 batting skills.
It is notable that in his four innings since returning Smith has cleared the boundary six times. He has never been a noted six hitter, having hit just 31 sixes across his 108-game ODI career.
On the sometimes-tiny English grounds in this World Cup, batsmen clearing the rope will be a common sight.
Australia will hope Smith will be able to follow suit, adding greater power to a game already blessed by impressive touch, timing and temperament.