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The two factors that’ll decide whether Smith’s opening gambit is a surprising success or ill-conceived failure

10th January, 2024
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Expert
10th January, 2024
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Moving Steve Smith to opener will be a success or failure depending on two factors – whether Australia win at home next summer against India and then retain the Ashes in 2025-26. 

The pair of upcoming two-match series against the West Indies on home soil and the greener turf of New Zealand are testing grounds for the Smith experiment, which was confirmed by chief selector George Bailey on Wednesday afternoon.

If it fails, then next summer’s early rounds of the Sheffield Shield will be a shoot-out between Cameron Bancroft, Matt Renshaw, Will Pucovski, Marcus Harris and any other male cricketer who can prove they can adeptly face the new ball from 22 yards with a piece of willow in hand. 

A couple more two-match series in Sri Lanka and the Caribbean, as well as a likely appearance in the World Test Championship final, will serve as next year’s entree to the Ashes of 2025-26. 

All going well, that could be the perfect time for Smith to bring down the curtain on his record-breaking career which has been unorthodox in pretty much every way – has it been mentioned previously that he started out as a leg-spinner? 

Smith is 34 and an old one at that. He will be doing well to last until the final Ashes Test a couple of years from now judging by the way he moves in the outfield these days.

Colombian singer Shakira is not known specifically for her cricket knowledge and, truth be told, it is probably limited but her assertion that the hips don’t lie holds true for Smith.

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Have you noticed the way he has been labouring around the outfield of late with his arms swinging in imperfect unison with his lower limbs? 

For someone who has spent nearly half their lifetime playing cricket at an elite level, he’s showing signs of significant wear and tear.

Smith looks certain to get the opportunity that any established Sheffield Shield opener in the country would like nothing more than to receive – the chance to prove yourself at the top of the order at the batting-friendly Adelaide Oval next week against a Windies side which is a shadow of a decade ago let alone the glory years of last century. 

It would be a surprise if Smith didn’t rack up a big score or two at Adelaide or the day-nighter at the Gabba despite the opening position being foreign to him at first-class level. 

Cameron Green spent most of last summer padded up waiting for a bat when he was listed at No.6 against the Windies. The same fate may befall him even he’s two slots higher in the order.

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - DECEMBER 01: Steve Smith of Australia bats during day two of the First Test match between Australia and the West Indies at Optus Stadium on December 01, 2022 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney - CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

Steve Smith plays a pull shot against the Windies in Perth. (Photo by Quinn Rooney – CA/Cricket Australia via Getty Images)

New Zealand’s superior attack and bowler-friendly conditions will prove a stiffer challenge for Smith and that’s when the experiment will get the official rubber stamp as a viable longish-term option from the Australian brains trust or cast into the circular file under George Bailey’s Tasmanian oak desk. 

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There have been all sorts of statistics thrown out as conjecture has raged about whether Smith would be effective against the new ball despite only batting no higher than three for NSW or Australia. 

The Smith of old would eat up the new ball for breakfast like Shooter McGavin ate up, well, let’s just say other things. 

Swing weren’t no thing to him and seam seemingly had no effect on the peak version of Smith in 2019 who was in a different league during the Ashes in amassing 774 runs at 110. 

Amazingly, despite batting just seven times due to a concussion from a Jofra Archer thunderbolt, he scored more than double any other player in the series apart from Ben Stokes (441 at 55) and Rory Burns (390 at 39). 

Whether the high-class attack of Archer, Stokes and Stuart Broad got movement in or away from Smith’s blade, he was in a constant zone of stepping in front of his stumps to flick the ball to the leg-side boundary. 

If they tried to keep the ball wide of the off stump, the slips cordon rarely came into play as he feasted through covers and point.

Steve Smith suffers a blow from Jofra Archer.

Steve Smith was struck on the neck by a venomous Jofra Archer bouncer at Lord’s in 2019. (Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

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Over the past few years he has no longer been that dominant player, or even close to it. 

And if the move to opener is based around ensuring Australia are fielding their optimal line-up for the showdowns with India and England, those two teams have been his kryptonite – even on home turf – since he owned those Ashes five years ago. 

Against India he managed a paltry 145 at 29 in four Tests on their turning tracks last year after chalking up 313 at 44.71 in the 2020-21 Border-Gavaskar Trophy series loss in Australia. 

The one bright spot was his 121 in the 2023 World Test Championship final at The Oval in the conditions least suited to India’s bowling attack.

In the previous Ashes series in Australia, he struggled through all five Tests for 244 runs at 30.5 and when the contest moved to England last year, he tallied a modest 373 at 37.3, boosted by his one century – 110 at Lords. 

He’s continued his mammoth scoring feats in recent years in Sri Lanka, at home to the West Indies and South Africa, but when it comes to Australia’s two closest rivals and main challengers to their global five-day throne, Smith is a mere mortal.

Whether he can conjure up a couple of vintage campaigns against those opponents in the twilight of his career looks rather unlikely whether the selectors move him to opener or not.

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