A knock on the door brought back to Steve Smith’s hands that which until recently was almost synonymous with his cricket: captaincy. As reported by ESPNCricinfo, a member of the Rajasthan Royals team management visited his hotel room a day before the game. And like a fish released from a glass tank back to its home pond, the move has shown signs of reviving his season as well.
It had been building for a while. Royals had been making some bold selections in the past few games: the dropping of Stokes, the promotion of Rahul Tripathi as an opener, and the inclusion of Ashton Turner. Finally, they made the move that I expected at the start of the season. Finally, they handed Smith the reins.
It is a potentially controversial appointment. Smith, originally billed to lead the returning Royals in 2018, was banned from the IPL by the BCCI following a ban on him by Cricket Australia. He was also banned from holding any formal leadership position in the Australian team for a year after that. Smith has already lead in a T20 League before this when he assumed captaincy of the Comilla Victorians in the Bangladesh Premier League.
But more striking, is the fact that as of one game ago, Smith did not fit into the RR XI. He was dropped when the Royals played Kings XI Punjab on Tuesday (April 16). Until then, Smith had scored 186 runs in seven innings, and not inspired confidence with his batting. So his knock against Mumbai, an unbeaten 59 off 48 balls, was in that context, incredibly important.
Smith shepherded the chase, supporting and supported by Riyan Parag. Four of his five fours came through point, ominous as they were well-timed. Three of those came against the class of Jasprit Bumrah and Lasith Malinga. He said later that he is still unable to straighten his arm, which explains why he has had trouble hitting sixes, which require and extension of the elbows as the bat meets the ball. But he hit one of those as well, twinkle-toed against leg-spin. Against the bowling side that has strangled seemingly easy chases, Smith did not throw away his fast start that saw him to 30 off 19. With the required run-rate under control, he moved a gear down and played the anchor role.
Setting an example with the bat has been a hallmark of Smith’s international captaincy. In all three formats, his batting record as captain is superior to his record when he is not leading the side. So Smith would have been under extra pressure when he came out to bat, this time at No 3, another position synonymous with him. Part of that pressure would have been external, but much of it would have been internal.
It seemed to be just enough to start his stalled engine. Of course the captaincy may have had nothing to do with Smith’s runs on the night. It could just be the law of averages catching up with a quality player. It could be his elbow, which is slowly improving and should be at full fitness in a couple of weeks. Only Smith knows. But the numbers say that captaincy brings out the best in him. And Mumbai Indians might say that as well, as they were thwarted once again at a venue they have just a 33 percent win record at.
Having someone in form at the helm then has a ripple effect on the rest of the team. In a recent column in the Economic Times, I argued that the role of the captain in T20 cricket may be diminishing. But that was in a case where the captain is doing well, but just didn’t fit the balance of the side. Ajinkya Rahane, who Smith replaced as skipper, is having a tough IPL so far too, averaging 23.66 at a strike rate of 130.67. His steady starts at the top of the order have, on occasion, weighed the batting unit down. So the captaincy remained in the hands of a player whose place in the XI wasn’t secure, and that makes it hard for that player to command the respect of the team. For the sake of this newly found team morale, the RR management will be hoping that Smith continues to score runs.
There are still long term questions though. Smith has been named in Australia’s squad for the World Cup and will leave the IPL before the last league game. Should Rajasthan miraculously claw their way back into the Playoffs, like they did last year, he will be unavailable for the remainder of the tournament. Who will the captaincy pass to? Will Rahane, the stand-in captain who stood in for a season and a half, be given the reins again? Or will the franchise look to develop a future Indian leader, like Sanju Samson? There are not many potential replacements or even potential deputies. While building their squad, RR bet heavily on the leadership of Smith and Rahane. One has been cast aside, and the other given a new lease of life. But you can’t help feel that it is all a little too late.