In eight days, the one-year ban imposed by Cricket Australia on Steve Smith and David Warner will come to an end. The pair has already taken baby steps towards their return by reuniting with the national team in Dubai last week. The reconciliation was only 24 hours to be exact, but at the end of the meeting, both Smith and Warner stated: "It's like we never left".
But the reality is that both Warner and Smith have been in exile from the international game for 12 months. They have missed Test matches, ODIs and T20s for Australia. Both have been part of a couple of T20 leagues around the world, but their official return into the international game will be via the biggest T20 tournament of them all — the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Smith has not been part of any team since January. The former Australian captain's last outing in a team environment was in the Bangladesh Premier League. Warner has been playing for his local club – Randwick-Petersham in Sydney Grade cricket. Both have been riddled by elbow injuries and have also been away from the limelight. But that is all about to change with the duo making a comeback in the IPL next week.
Interestingly, Smith and Warner's brief media session in Dubai was in front of just one cameraman and the Australian media manager. From next week they will constantly be in the public eye, both on and off the field. The next six weeks will be frantic, but a competition such as the IPL is bound to provide them the solid foundation of what the next six months could be like. They will need to face the cameras and the media. Every innings will be judged on social media and various opinions will circulate in the newspapers.
After a year in isolation, both Smith and Warner will be sharing dressing rooms with some of the best players in the world. Questions will be asked by their peers about the year in isolation or even what exactly transpired on that day in Cape Town.
They will take on their fierce rivals in a competitive environment and be exposed to stiff competition. It is bound to be a significant rise from playing club cricket to the IPL. Warner will need to confront the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Rashid Khan in the nets, while Smith will tackle bowlers like Jofra Archer and Ben Stokes. It is one thing facing bowling machines and grade bowlers in Sydney, but the IPL will be the true picture.
For the next six weeks, Warner and Smith will get a chance to ensure their games have not diminished. It is a chance for both of them to evolve their skills in different conditions and train their minds to adapt to various situations. More importantly, it will be the match practice that will be hugely beneficial.
In the next month, Warner will need to tackle new-ball bowlers such as Jasprit Bumrah, Trent Boult, Kagiso Rabada and Mohammed Shami. Chances are he will confront them again in two months playing for Australia at the World Cup. The IPL will a barometer of where his batting is at and the facets he needs to improve on. Smith will be no different. He is a cricket addict and he will take pleasure in opposition teams trying to find a weakness in his game.
The IPL will also allow them to gain match fitness. Each of them will face various game scenarios and competitions. They will need to dig their teams out of tough situations and their mental strength will put to the test.
Playing in the IPL can be draining most of the times with all the travel, the heat, the training, and matches. But for Smith and Warner, it is exactly what they need after a year away from the game.
Former Australia captain Shane Warne said that the two will be hungry and raring to perform on the big stage that is the IPL.
"Smith and Warner will be hungry, fresh, raring to go, very determined and would want to let their bat do the talking. Look out for them, anyone who thinks Smith and Warner wouldn't perform, you're wrong,"
"They are playing in a proper competition, in the best T20 league in the world, against guys who will play in the World Cup. So it is fantastic preparation leading up to the World Cup, even if it is T20," Warne said.
The regathering in Dubai with Australian players have no doubt lifted Smith and Warner's spirits and the onus is now on them to ensure they arrive at the World Cup at the peak of their powers. The IPL will present them a golden chance to rediscover their touch with international standards.