Bangladesh tour a peek into Smith's long-term vision
Occasionally, selection is just as much a pointer to the coming months and years as it is for the five days ahead. That is the case with Steven Smith's side for the first Test in Mirpur. They will be making two changes to the XI that lost their previous Test, in Dharamsala against India in March.
Ashton Agar returns after four years away, while Usman Khawaja is principally back to get into the Test groove again before the Ashes opener in November. Smith's explanation of Steve O'Keefe's omission from the squad, in favour of Agar, is instructive of his longer-term leadership goals. Namely, that he plans to be around for a long time.
Since Allan Border, no Australian leader has spent more than Ricky Ponting's seven years in the job, the rest staying for somewhere short of five. With two candles nearly on the cake for Smith, he is already thinking four years ahead to the next time Australia is due for a Test series in India, one he craves to lead in and win.
While O'Keefe's numerical return at Test and first-class level is top class, at 32 he is nine years Agar's senior. The younger man has far from bashed the door down on conventional measures, claiming his first-class wickets at more than 40 apiece. Despite his two Ashes Tests in 2013 (for just two wickets) he remains, to a certain extent, a project player. But that project aligns neatly with Smith's own: the aforementioned Indian return bout in 2021.
"He's come a long way," Smith said of Agar's inclusion. "For us it's more looking to the future. Ashton has obviously been on the radar for a long time and someone we see as having a pretty bright future. Four years' time back in India it's something I want to achieve while I'm captain. I want to win in India, that's big on my bucket list."
Similar logic applies to Khawaja. Aside from a dismal run in Sri Lanka last year where he lost his subcontinental spot, he has a body of work to dream of since returning to the side two Australian summers ago. But Smith made a more basic point about why Khawaja has nudged ahead of Shaun Marsh in the pecking order.
"Usman obviously hasn't played any cricket since the Sydney Test match, that was his last game and that was a long time ago," he said. "We need to get him back into the fold and get him playing cricket again." Before the home Ashes, Smith means, where the stylish left-hand batsman remains a lock.
It isn't just the fortunes of Khawaja that have changed since that Sri Lankan shocker. Whitewashed three-zip after going in favourites, expectations for India were measured, to say the least. But there, they stopped the rot and put on a better than commendable show, not least by breaking a nine-game losing snap in the region. It governs a far healthier mindset.
"Something I learned a lot about in India as a captain in particular was knowing the different tempos of the game and when to attack a little bit more," Smith said. "It's been a good learning experience for me. I think the key to winning overseas is to ensure that you're adapting consistently and putting those performances on the board consistently."
This confidence translates to relying on four bowlers alone to capture 20 wickets. Smith has been reluctant to use Glenn Maxwell's spin since his return to the Test side in Ranchi, and seldom bowls himself now despite earning his national debut as a bowler first.
"I know I copped a little bit of criticism for not using him [Maxwell] as much in the India series but again, you've got two quality spinners and they're there to do a job," Smith said. "In an ideal world, someone in the top six could bowl some good medium pace or good pace, it'd be ideal, but at the moment we've got to go with what we've got."
The tacit message to Maxwell came in response to the next question put to Smith, about England's allrounder penchant. May it necessitate a seaming allrounder for Brisbane in November? "Yeah it could," the Australian captain said. "They've got a very deep line-up."
With Smith also detailing a scenario where five specialist bowlers could be included for that series opener - a fit fab four of Australian quicks (Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood, Pat Cummins and James Pattinson) alongside Nathan Lyon - it's doubly important for Maxwell to use these Tests to make himself indispensable at six. "He does have an opportunity," Smith continued. "He played pretty well in India, a lot better than other guys in that last Test. He certainly has the opportunity to nail down that spot, that's for sure."
For all the inevitable Ashes chat, Smith was quick to clarify that Bangladesh won't be underestimated, given they bossed over England inside three days the last time they played a Test here. Bangladesh also beat Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka to level a three-Test series in March. "We're going to have to be at our best here," he said.
A slightly dry surface has been chosen in Mirpur among the two shortlisted, but Smith was reluctant to enter the encounter worrying too much about that. "There's a 'no whingeing' policy about anything here in the subcontinent, wickets certainly fall under that," he said. "They've put some grass clippings down to make it look a bit greener than what it is but it's pretty dry underneath. I dare say it'll be pretty slow."
Off-field, it is the first time an Australian team of any variety has played since the conclusion of the bitter pay war earlier this month, finally striking an agreement that made this tour possible. As a consequence, Smith acknowledged the importance of now rebuilding the brand of the game and national team after a torrent of bad blood was shed between players and administrators.
"The pay dispute went on longer than we all would have liked but thankfully it's all dealt with now," he said. "We can move on with playing and trying to win back a few fans that we perhaps may have lost along the way. I think we'll do that by playing good, hard fought cricket and winning games of cricket."
Bangladesh is good a place to start as any. Smith's predecessor Michael Clarke put a premium on winning away and had middling success in doing so. For Smith, he managed it at the first time of asking in New Zealand, but came away without a trophy in the next two attempts. So drawing from the qualified-success of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, there is no better time or place to square the ledger and begin charting the course to his long-term Indian summit.