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Steve Smith is barely 23 years old and he's already a relic of another era.
Smith is the last of Andrew Hilditch's big Ashes gambles. Some may argue that Andrew Hilditch's reign should have ended years before he disappeared. But there he was in 2010-11, seemingly sharing his position of chairman of selectors with the National Talent Manager Greg Chappell. Between them they came up with three young players to save Australia.
Phil Hughes had barely made a run for the summer in Shield cricket and was oddly brought back at the WACA to face Chris Tremlett and Steven Finn after being dropped because it was assumed he had a problem with the short ball. At Sydney, Usman Khawaja came in to bat at No. 3 for his first Test (Bradman batted at seven in his first Test, Ricky Ponting at five), against an attack that had routinely shredded Australia's batsmen.
And Steve Smith was brought in for the Perth Test to bat at No. 6 after Marcus North's career was ended. Five months earlier, when Ponting was asked directly if Smith was a No. 6 batsman, he said no. But there was Steve Smith, walking out to bat at No. 6 for his country with a slightly dodgy technique on a wicket that allowed few errors.
The Test at which Ponting was asked about Smith at six was on Smith's greatest international moment. Playing as a bowling allrounder and batting at eight, Smith had been part of the carnage at Headingley when Pakistan had bowled them out for 88. In the second innings he came in with Australia 217 for 6 and a lead of only 48. Smith spent quite a while just staying in with Tim Paine and then Mitchell Johnson. It was a very patient innings from someone who rarely shows that trait.
When Smith was left with the tail, he exploded. Multiple boundaries of Mohammad Asif, Umar Gul and Mohammad Amir showed his talent, and back to back sixes off Danish Kaneria showed how much he believed in himself. Three of these bowlers are now in disgrace, but in this match Asif and Amir were in another zone, and Kaneria was hit for more boundaries by Smith in that innings than the rest of the Australians had hit off him in the entire match. By the time Smith was out for 77, Australia had a lead of 180 and had a chance of stealing a match they shouldn't have been close to. Yet, in that match, and in every Test he has played since, he's gone wicketless.
The reason Smith was there in the first place wasn't just a Hilditch hunch. In Smith's first full season of first-class cricket he averaged 77 with the bat, making four hundreds, and finished the year with a 7 for 64 haul against South Australia. He was only 20. Clearly already one of the best fieldsmen on the planet. A breath of fresh air in a stale team. And Australia took that gamble.
It hasn't paid off.
Three years down the track Smith is still not a No. 6 international batsman. In five Tests he has two half centuries and an average of 28. In 31 ODIs he has no half-centuries and an average of 21. In 20 T20Is he has no half-centuries, an average of 15 and a strike-rate of 108.
As a bowler in Tests he only has the three wickets from his first Test, as Marcus North took six wickets at the other end. In ODIs, Smith averages 34 with the ball, but Michael Clarke didn't even give him a bowl in his last match, against England. Smith has only ever bowled out his ten overs twice. In his last five ODIs he's only bowled eight overs, and three times hasn't bowed at all. It's in T20Is where his bowling has been most effective: an average of 21 and economy of 7.85. But he's only bowled in two of his last six games, which isn't a good sign.
Smith is now an extremely experienced young cricketer. He's played for Australia, New South Wales, Pune Warriors, Worcestershire, Kochi Tuskers, Royal Challengers Bangalore and even for Kent's second XI. Yet, he doesn't seem to be improving at all. Being an energetic guy and a brilliant fielder only gets you so far.
Years ago, I remember the late great David Hookes on commentary when Derek Crookes was being talked about as a great fielder. They flashed up his stats as they talked about him, and Hookes (thinking he was off mic) said something roughly like "with stats like that, he'd wanna be a [expletive] good fielder".
John Inverarity has already cut Hughes and Khawaja loose, hoping that they will perform and demand reselection. Now the same has to be done with Smith. Smith is a brilliant fielder, a flawed batsman and a rarely used bowler. In this era, Australia need more.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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