Australia in New Zealand 2015-16 February 19, 2016

Relaxed Australia eye No. 1 ranking


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'We want to be No.1 in all formats' - Smith

One of the more revealing Australian cricket interviews of the past week occurred on Melbourne radio rather than in New Zealand, and featured not a member of the Test squad but a limited-overs specialist. It was John Hastings, one-time Test cricketer and some-time ODI and T20 player whose early career was played under Michael Clarke, and who is now enjoying a renaissance under Steven Smith.

At 30, Hastings has plenty of experience at all levels and is regarded as a clever thinker about the game, particularly his detailed plans for opposing batsmen. So it was fascinating to hear his response when asked about the culture in the side under Smith, and the relaxed atmosphere that Smith and coach Darren Lehmann had fostered over the past six months. Hastings, recently returned from the Chappell-Hadlee Series, was effusive in his praise.

"Not to take anything away from the boys when I played back whenever it was… It's just different," Hastings said on RSN radio. "I don't know whether it's because I was younger, I was a bit more afraid to speak up and speak my mind. Darren Lehmann and Steve Smith have created an environment where everyone is equal, honesty is the key and communication is the key.

"When you have those key factors in your side, it just breeds a really good culture and environment. For me it's brilliant. I can just go in and be yourself, no question is too dumb. If you think you've seen something on the field you bring it up, people don't shoot you down. It's just a really good environment."

Hastings also noted that the age of Smith's players helped the gelling process, for many had come up through age-group cricket together or knew each other from the Centre of Excellence. It should also be noted that Hastings was not critical of past captains, but rather he observed that the culture was different when "big personalities" such as Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Brett Lee and Michael Hussey were present.

Nobody could argue Smith's team is completely devoid of "big personalities" - David Warner's name comes immediately to mind. But there is also plenty of understated excellence: think Adam Voges, Nathan Lyon, Peter Nevill, Josh Hazlewood, among others. Whatever the cause, in the six months since Clarke led a series of post-Ashes retirements, Australia have not lost a Test match.

"We're very relaxed and trying to improve every day," Smith said. "I think that's really important for this group, to try and make sure we're trying to get better each day and able to adapt to everywhere we go around the world. I think the environment is a good place to be at the moment, where we're gelling well as a group and everyone is playing for the right reasons."

Remarkably, Smith is yet to taste defeat as a Test captain, having won six and drawn four matches as captain since he first stood in for Clarke in a temporary capacity in the 2014-15 home summer against India. They may not yet have been tested to their maximum - West Indies were weak opponents and New Zealand have underwhelmed - but they have done enough to be within striking distance of the No.1 Test ranking.

All they have to do is avoid defeat over the next five days in Christchurch. Any sort of series win in New Zealand would be enough for Australia to take the top spot from India, which would be a remarkable achievement given they have lost Clarke, Mitchell Johnson, Chris Rogers, Brad Haddin, Shane Watson and Ryan Harris to retirement in the past year.

"We want to be No.1 in the world in every format of the game and if we win this week we'll be No.1 in two of those formats," Smith said. "For us we do want to win away from home as well. That's massive on my agenda and the guys' agenda and I thought we played really well in the first Test match to adapt to the conditions and I think it's going to be important for us going forward to make sure we're doing that a lot.

"For me it's satisfying [if we] get that ranking. I think that would be really good for us as a group. But when you're number one, you want to stretch that distance between the teams. For us that's making sure we play well away from home."

The first step on that road is to win in Christchurch, where James Pattinson has been confirmed as the replacement for Peter Siddle, who has back pain. Siddle's absence, though, does raise the question of which bowler will do the hard work into the wind - a significant wind, if the past couple of days in Christchurch are any indication - as Pattinson and Hazlewood would both prefer to work down-breeze, and Jackson Bird struggled in the first innings in Wellington.

"I think that's understandable ... given it was his first game back for a while and I think he was a little bit nervous," Smith said of Bird. "I think he did get a little bit better as the game went on, I'm sure he'll come out tomorrow with all guns blazing and I'm sure if gets the ball in the right areas he'll get a lot of assistance from that wicket.

"I think Josh can bowl the same way he's been bowling, he's been really impressive for quite a while now. He's a class bowler and if he continues to bowl the way he is at the moment he's going to take a lot of wickets."

Smith described the Hagley Oval pitch as "quite green and wet" and similar to the Basin Reserve surface, but he was wary of taking too much note of the pitch until the morning of the Test. Smith had success by winning the toss and sending New Zealand in at the Basin Reserve, but there is no guarantee he will go for the same option if given the opportunity in Christchurch.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Xiong on February 19, 2016, 14:04 GMT

    @Jono Makim I don't think beating SL even in SL would prove anything about this Australian team in sub continent conditions, they're in a much bigger and from the looks of it much more difficult rebuilding process than Australia. If anything I think a loss to SL would ring major alarm bells, but not much to write home about for a win. I am looking forward to the next tour of India though. At this point I stand convinced we will put up a much, much better fight than we did last time after the confused selections and random assortment of players who were thrown in along with the joys of homework gate, but proof is in the pudding. Hopefully we can at least win a test there, a series draw or win would be great so I can finally hear the end of the 4-0 comments that seem to be a constant even now, 3 years on.

  • Russell on February 19, 2016, 13:56 GMT

    @JONO - good point re. Yasir, he's a top bowler, I rate Wahab Riaz highly too. Pakistan are a good team, definitely. But their batting usually falls apart when it seams/swings in England. Can't see them doing too well against pace and bounce in Australia either. Maybe their batting is stronger these days but I saw them on their last tour of England and it was embarrassing. Re. England beating South Africa, Rabada was seriously good. The days of Steyn and Philander running through teams are over

  •   Jono Makim on February 19, 2016, 13:19 GMT

    @Thebatsmansholdingthrbowlerswilley. I'm actually not sure if England can make that sort of claim yet, they got SA at a real low point, sans Steyn and Philander. Imagine England without Anderson and Broad, not quite the same, is it? Talented young side but they need to back it up over a period of time. I'm also not sure Pakistan would do too badly in Aus, England or SA right now, just that they aren't getting the chance to show it, Yasir is a massive find for them, a good leggie will make you very competitive in Aus and SA.

  • Russell on February 19, 2016, 11:38 GMT

    Smith is a smart cookie - he must have a sharp cricket brain. He looked a terrible batsman when he started, he batted like someone in a Young Farmers XI. But he worked out a highly effective method to score a lot of runs. You can't make such a dramatic improvement without having a sharp cricket brain. Smith is taking the team in the right direction. The Number 1 slot will be changing hands regularly because the two strongest sides, England and Australia, are not currently equipped to win in the sub-continent (except maybe Sri Lanka). Also India and Pakistan stand no chance of beating England, Aussie or South Africa away from home. India have a lot of home games coming up in the next two years so they may pinch the top spot for a while

  • Ski on February 19, 2016, 11:01 GMT

    No team is anywhere being a real number 1 at the moment.

  • xxxxx on February 19, 2016, 10:46 GMT

    Tougher tours ahead for Aus but a few batsmen scoring runs in FC cricket including Bancroft and a guy with the name of Hughes for NSW. Handscomb would be my next batsman to have around the Test team for the future. As others have noted this team is a work in progress and to keep improving is the key.

  •   Jono Makim on February 19, 2016, 10:00 GMT

    @Dunger.Bob. I agree that if we take the no.1 ranking a lot of it will be thanks to the likes of Harris and MJ who bought us a lot of wins. I'm a little bit unsure about the future prospects of this side until we play away to one of the stronger Asian sides, be it SL, Pakistan or India. That will be the litmus test. The strength of the side though as you rightly point out is that Voges aside, there are no upcoming retirements, not even in the next 4 years and what I like even more is the bunch of young batsmen that have shown up behind the current crop in the shield this year. There have been several rookies come in and truly excel themselves in several matches. Just need a good leggie to stand up, if you are reading Messrs Boyce, Zampa, Muirhead or Swepson, the time is ripe.

  • Prasanna on February 19, 2016, 9:21 GMT

    Can't wait for the start. Doesn't matter if we win the toss or not, as long as we adjust to the conditions, we are safe. It worked for us in Adelaide and Wellington and I wonder why it should not at the Hagley. Get KW and Bmac and we should be able to put pressure on their batsmen. Easy to be said than done though. Good luck. Go Green !!

  • Peter on February 19, 2016, 8:48 GMT

    Keep the foot on the throat lads

  • sam on February 19, 2016, 7:43 GMT

    Smith is an intelligent and thinking captain. The way he asked Lyon to change his line to outside off-stump and immediately got rewards during Australia vs WI tests and the way Mitch Marsh got immediate reward on changing from round the wicket to over the wicket to the left handed batsman on Smith's advice are testament to that fact. Well, he is proving to be the right guy to lead Australia. And he has proved he can win away from home. Now whether he can win in England and India are two entirely different questions (and he knows) and much more difficult challenges.

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