Smith enters revolving spin door
Andrew Hilditch raised more than a few eyebrows on the eve of the Brisbane Test when he boldly declared Australia's spin bowling stocks were "in a pretty good spot at the moment". That assessment seemed misguidedly optimistic at the time, and even more so now that a 20-year-old wrist-spinner with just 11 first-class wickets to his name has been called into the Australian squad as cover for Nathan Hauritz in the Perth Test.
Steven Smith is regarded by many as an Australian player of the future, but opinion is divided over precisely what role he should fill. To date, Smith's wrist spin has produced six wickets at 55.00 for New South Wales in the Sheffield Shield this season - his career average expands further to 75.18 - and his action was recently described as "loose" by former Test legspinner Kerry O'Keeffe. "The Blues prodigy is a batsman first and a slow bowler second," O'Keeffe added.
Smith has enjoyed somewhat more success with the bat, raising his maiden first-class century against Queensland over the past week. But it is his bowling for which Hilditch's panel have called him into the Test squad, and on that account there must be considerable concern. He returned figures of 0 for 156 from 25 overs against the Bulls in a match the Blues conceded by nine wickets.
"The bowling's going pretty well," Smith said at Sydney airport. "It was quite hard gripping the ball up there [in Brisbane]. It was really sticky conditions, a little bit different to what I've been used to. I had a good bowl this morning and the ball seems to be coming out pretty well. So if I get an opportunity, I'm sure I'll take it with both hands."
He has never met Ricky Ponting and was watching a movie when he learned of his selection. "I couldn't believe it," Smith said. "I'm still shocked. I was shaking for about an hour and a half after I heard."
Smith will be in contention to make his Test debut should Hauritz fail to recover from a finger injury sustained at training on Tuesday. He would join a list of spinners that includes Stuart MacGill, Brad Hogg, Beau Casson, Cameron White, Jason Krejza, Bryce McGain and, most recently, Hauritz to have turned out for the Test side since Shane Warne's retirement in 2007, opening Hilditch's panel to further accusations of inconsistency.
"While he has excited all in recent times for New South Wales with the bat," Hilditch said, "we consider his skills as a leg spinner will give good balance to the attack. We are confident he will seize the opportunity if it presents itself in Perth.''
Warne recently described Smith as "one to watch" and "a real bolter", but urged selectors not to rush him into the Test side. Still, with the uncapped pace duo of Clint McKay and Brett Geeves Australia's only other options - and memories still fresh in Ricky Ponting's mind of India's 72-run victory the last time he fielded an all-pace attack at the WACA - Warne's advice may go unheeded.
"In a perfect world ... he would learn how to bowl in different conditions," Warne said. "[He would bowl in] different situations, trying to bowl a side out to win a game, bowl when they are miles behind, bowl defensively so they don't lose, on first-day wickets when it's not turning, on fourth-day wickets when the expectation of you is that you come out and take five-for. [Selectors should] be patient with him and just let him bowl.
"In an ideal world I'd love him to play 10 Shield games, learn how to bowl in all the different situations, and not get carried away by all the one-dayers and Twenty20s. But you can't say to a young player, 'We're going to rest you from Twenty20 or one-dayers, we want you to learn your craft at Shield cricket.' It's nearly impossible to do that these days."
News of Smith's elevation to the Test squad will come as a major blow to Jason Krejza, who was widely considered to be Australia's next-in-line spinner after Hauritz. Krejza has not played a Test since Perth last year, and despite managing just a solitary wicket in that six-wicket loss to South Africa, he has been among the better-performed first class spinners this season with 13 wickets at 47.23 for Tasmania.
Alex Brown is deputy editor of Cricinfo