The game’s governing body said in 2018 that Steve Smith could return as Australian captain only with the public’s blessing. Do they regret that now-significant clause?
It was March 28, 2018, and four days after the ball-tampering scandal in South Africa.
Cricket Australia had reviewed the findings of its investigation, had considered the consequences offending players should face, and were ready to make their statement.
We remember the findings off by heart: David Warner was responsible for the plan, Cameron Bancroft for executing it, and Smith for sitting idly by.
In the ensuing Cricket Australia statement, we can probably recite the bans, too: 12 months for Smith and Warner, nine for Bancroft.
But while it might have been overlooked at the time, one aspect of the statement — with a 2021 lens — sticks out like a sore thumb.
Cricket Australia said of Smith: “Any consideration of further leadership would be conditional on acceptance by fans and the public, form and authority among the playing group”.
That is, Smith can return as skipper, but only under the proviso that the wider Australian public give him the green light.
This was front-and-centre of Cricket Australia’s response — not some footnote in the ensuing cultural review, or an off-the-cuff remark by an official.
Not only that, but the ‘fan consent’ aspect was placed first, ahead of both Smith’s personal form and teammates approval, as one of three boxes that must be ticked.
Fast forward three years, and Cricket Australia probably didn’t think they’d be in this position.
At the time, knowing the swift denunciation of Smith back home, the hierarchy likely didn’t envisage his return to the role.
A viable long-term candidate will surely emerge in two years, they’d have thought.
Except now it’s been three, and there hasn’t.
Smith this week put up his hand to return to the captaincy, in a first real sign of intent.
Stopping short of saying “I want the job back”, Smith instead stated that if they came knocking, he wouldn’t say no.
“I’ve certainly had a lot of time to think about it and I guess now I’ve got to a point where if the opportunity did come up again, I would be keen,” Smith told News Corp.
“If it was what Cricket Australia wanted and it was what was best for the team at the time, it’s certainly something I would be interested in now, that’s for sure.”
Cricket Australia know that after Tim Paine, the country’s next Test captain is a two-horse race between Smith and Pat Cummins.
While a perfect candidate off the field, there are still questions on whether Cummins could execute the role on it.
In that regard, Smith is the far safer bet.
But as we know, there’s much more to it than that.
Should Cummins cool on the idea of leading Australia at Test level, just how will Cricket Australia address this “fan consent” clause they made in March 2018?
It’s not something they can forego.
In the aftermath of sandpaper gate, “the fans” were the key stakeholders Cricket Australia said it must win back.
The public had turned their back on the team, it said, and it must do everything it can to “win back their trust”.
This was Justin Langer and Paine’s key goal when taking over, and one they have performed admirably.
But there’s still work to do, and Cricket Australia cannot do away with a promise it made three years ago.
Perhaps the biggest problem is a logistical one: just how does one gauge the average fan’s view on Smith?
Listening to talkback radio and sifting through comments sections on various websites (this one included) would suggested he is not welcome as captain again.
“He had his chance, he blew it”, is an overriding theme.
But just as a diner is more inclined to write a negative review than a positive one, the never-again camp may just be more vocal.
Unofficial surveys certainly back that up.
News Corp canvassed 1700 readers in November and two-thirds said they would happily see Smith return to the role.
Just one third said his time was done.
Should it come to it, Cricket Australia must listen to the fans on Smith, given it had promised to do so.
How it would do so is tricky.
But to bypass them would undo some positive steps taken since that fateful day three years ago.