Steve Smith has put Australian Cricket into an almighty, awkward pickle.
The stand-in captain has won widespread approval after helping Australia to turn around its Tour of India following Pat Cummins’ return to Australia.
Now, the cricket world is all saying the same thing about the conundrum — that Smith must be captain heading into the 2023 World Cup in India.
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Australia on Wednesday night returned to the No. 1 spot on the ICC ODI rankings after wrapping up a convincing 2-1 series win over India.
Spinners Adam Zampa and Ashton Agar turned the decider in Chennai to hand India its first series defeat at home since an Usman Khawaja-led Aussie victory in 2019.
The series was another huge feather in Smith’s captaincy cap, a reminder Mitchell Starc is as fearsome as any white ball bowler in the world and a signal a Mitchell Marsh-Travis Head combination might be the solution at the top of the order.
It is a stunning turn around after the Test series was on the brink of coming off the rails. Australia was down 2-0 in the Test series, including the humiliation of an innings and 132 runs defeat in the First Test of the series.
Cummins was forced to return home to be with his mother in the days leading up to her passing.
Smith took the top job ahead of the Third Test and led Australia to victory before the Fourth Test ended in a draw.
His leadership and attacking tactical moved helped Australia finish the tour with ending India’s run of seven consecutive ODI series wins.
Smith, who captained Australia in 33 Tests before the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal, was praised by Aussie legend Matthew Hayden throughout the Test series. Now it seems everyone has come to the same awkward conclusion — at a time when Cummins’ family life seems so much more important than a simple game of cricket.
Indian spinner Ravi Ashwin was among those to point to Smith’s superb leadership on the field.
The earlier Indore Test saw Smith’s captaincy at its finest, setting his trademark in-out fields to keep India under constant pressure whilst managing his bowlers effortlessly.
“It was probably as well as Steve Smith has ever captained,” said broadcaster Gerard Whateley on SEN at the time.
“His body language on day two and how into the fight he was, it was captivating.”
Former fast bowler Mitchell Johnson wrote in the West Australian that “Smith’s captaincy acumen should serve as a reminder of what a valuable asset his cricket brain is to the Australian team.”
Smith was banned from leadership positions for twelve months following the Newlands sandpaper scandal, and any full-time return to the captaincy would require a specific Cricket Australia process that took into account the condition of “his acceptance by fans and the public, form and authority among the playing group,” in line with the sanctions placed on him in 2018.
Smith himself has established he is happy as a deputy, declaring this Australian side is “Patty’s team”.
Despite that, he is keen for the challenge, describing India as a place he loves captaining.
“It’s a game of chess, every ball means something,” he said.
“It’s good fun moving people and trying to make the batter think and something different and just playing games with them.
“It’s probably my favourite place in the world to captain.”
Aussie great Shane Watson this week, however, told the other side of the story.
“No Steve shouldn’t be leading the Aussie side again. Pat Cummins is doing good,” he said.
“He is doing a great job as a great leader. No question Steve Smith shouldn’t lead the team.”
There were immediate concerns raised about the workload Cummins will carry after he was announced as Aaron Finch’s replacement as ODI captain in October.
Robert Craddock agreed, but said Smith was best suited to the “occasional appearance” as captain.
“It just works well,” he said.
“It’s so obvious to say, ‘oh, he should be full time captain’, but I agree with him, I think it’s the best fit.”
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