India vs Australia: Steven Smith will need to be guiding light for his team to stop rampant hosts
If Australia were to prove the prognosticators already calling for another Indian whitewash wrong, it has to start with their skipper Steven Smith.
The year 2013, only four years past, feels like a long time ago. The world was much different then. Donald Trump was seen as a know-nothing huckster and was the butt of many jokes – so 2017 may not be that different — and his outsized and seemingly unrealistic presidential ambitions were just fodder for late night comedy shows. With his upset victory in the US elections, he is now at the helm of affairs as the world seems to have taken a darker turn that makes four weeks feel like four years.
The world has changed a lot for Steven Smith too in these four years. In 2013, during Australia's tour of India, Smith was considered not a lot more than a lower order batsman, capable of turning a few tricks with the ball. He had debuted three years earlier at Lord's but a batting average of 26-and-change and just three wickets to his name in five Tests saw him dropped from the team after Australia's disastrous home Ashes in 2010-11. His unorthodox batting style with so many moving parts meant his survival at the highest level was always going to be harder, and his leg spin, well, let's just say no one is going to confuse him with Shane Warne. He was seen as someone that kept the mood around the squad light and a bits-and-pieces cricketer.
The “homeworkgate” during the middle of the 2013 India tour allowed the five-Tests-old Smith to get another look-in, and a sedate 92 although overshadowed by Shikhar Dhawan's blistering debut 187, gave his career a new lifeline. An average of 40 in two Tests in India managed him a spot in the Ashes and a brilliant maiden Test hundred in the final Test at the Oval saw him turn a corner and he has never looked back.
Smith now returns to India as a 50-Tests veteran and the undisputed leader of the side. He is now amongst the four best young Test batsmen under the age of 30, and is ranked as the best in the ICC rankings. He averages in excess of 60 – rarefied air very few batsmen in history of the sport breathe – with 17 centuries to his name, the same number of Tests he has been the full time captain of Australia.
He still has his idiosyncrasies and tics at the batting crease but the runs have not stopped flowing. It became a torrent during the home summer of 2014-15 when he smashed four centuries in four Tests against India setting him up to take over the reins from Michael Clarke for good the following summer. The additional responsibility of captaincy seems to have spurred his batting further as he has averaged in the last 17 Tests in excess of 69 — despite the relative lull against South Africa with eight hundreds and ten fifties, leading to 10 wins.
Ten of his 17 centuries have come at home but his away record is still very impressive, averaging over 53. He will need every bit of that 53, and more, as he leads his troops to the arduous and most challenging prospect in Test cricketing world today, India. He is the linchpin of the side, by virtue of his captaincy, batting position and run-scoring abilities on tracks that may not be the best suited for other Australian batsmen's shot making. Even as Australia returned home from Sri Lanka routed and empty handed in 2016, Smith had respectable returns of nearly 250 runs in three Tests that included a stellar 119 at the Sinhalese Sports Club.
The home series past summer against South Africa was a sobering moment for Smith and Australia as they were clearly outplayed by the visitors. They came second in that series only because there were just two teams playing, and that led to shedding of some old wood and infusion of new blood. The results were instantaneous as Australia achieved a consolation win in the second day-night Test at Adelaide and shellacked the Pakistanis soon after, with Smith returning to his regal form, punding out two centuries.
Almost all of Smith's predecessors have found touring India too hot to handle, and with India riding high on a streak of wins, he will have to ensure he never loses sight of the subcontinental hosts in the four Test series. An advantage his side has over the other recent visitors to India is that his bowling unit is a lot more settled, and is blessed with the pace of Mitchell Starc, the accuracy of Josh Hazlewood, and the steady hand of Nathan Lyon, certain names on the team sheet after the captain and vice-captain. Smith is sure to include Steve O'Keefe as the second spinner and the only choice in the playing XI he will have to make is for the all rounder spot at six: Glenn Maxwell or Mitchell Marsh?
Australia will have to contend with the threat of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, and Smith will have to be the guiding light for his batting lineup that is a little light on experience playing on turning tracks. If Australia were to prove the prognosticators already calling for another Indian whitewash wrong, it has to start with their skipper. He could do well by calling it right at the toss, although Alastair Cook in 2016 and Clarke himself found it in 2013, winning the toss and batting first can only get you so far in India. But hey, if Trump can be the American president in 2017, Australia and their captain can dare to dream. Times change, sometimes a lot faster and more unpredictably than we think.
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