India v Australia, 3rd Test, Mohali, 1st day March 14, 2013

Steven Smith's lucky break


Sometimes, players just find themselves in the right place at the right time. When Steven Smith was named in Australia's 17-man squad for this Indian tour, he appeared to be the 17th most likely to play a Test. The selectors made it plain that Smith was chosen as a backup batsman, not an allrounder, but the way they have structured the side with the wicketkeeper batting at six, Smith was not even the first backup - that role was occupied by Usman Khawaja.

But Khawaja forgot his homework and Matthew Wade rolled his ankle on the basketball court and all of a sudden, Smith has found himself back in the Test team for the first time since the disastrous Ashes series of 2010-11. That was the series that prompted the Argus Report. It was Australia's nadir, including as it did three innings losses at home to England.

Smith was a floating player of limited impact in that series. Xavier Doherty was an out-of-his-depth spinner. Ricky Ponting looked more chance of being around for the 2013 Ashes at age 38. Now, with two Tests remaining until the Ashes, Ponting is retired from Test cricket and is at home piling up Sheffield Shield hundreds - he scored 104 for Tasmania as the first day in Mohali was washed out - but Doherty and Smith are back in the Test side.

Smith will bat at No. 5 in Mohali. He is fortunate to be in the team, and not just because of Khawaja's off-field mistake. The Australian batting cupboard is alarmingly bare, as highlighted by the fact that Ponting is on top of the Shield run tally this year while Phillip Hughes, who has looked awful against spin on this tour and would have been dropped but for the homework punishments, is in second place.

Tasmania's Alex Doolan is enjoying a productive season back home and could have been considered for this tour but there are few other batsmen pressing their claims. When the squad was announced, John Inverarity spoke highly of Smith's ability against spin bowling, which swayed them to choose him despite him not having scored a Shield hundred this season. Not that his batting form has been poor: he has 296 runs at 37 this summer and averaged 41 last season.

In his first incarnation as a Test cricketer, against Pakistan in England in 2010, Smith was chosen as the frontline spinner in Australia's side. Against England he was a floating batting allrounder, but he did not have the technique for Test cricket. Now, he hardly bowls. He has sent down only 15 overs in the Shield this season and was getting hit over the top by the struggling Hughes during Australia's centre-wicket training on day four in Hyderabad.

But Smith is not here for his bowling. Good judges believe his technique has improved since he last played Test cricket. Inverarity believes so, as does Ponting, who captained four of the five Tests Smith has played. "I think we've seen Steven Smith develop into a better player in the last 12 months than he was when we first saw him play for Australia," Ponting said this week.

By the standards of Australian domestic cricket in recent years, his first-class batting record is actually pretty good. In 38 matches he has averaged 41.74 and has made five centuries and 14 fifties. He was the only Australian besides Ed Cowan to survive for 100 deliveries in the first of the warm-up matches in Chennai, where he scored 41 from 107 balls against the Indian Board President's XI.

"I think I've improved a lot the last 12 to 18 months," Smith said after being named in Australia's XI. "I've changed a couple of things with my technique that have made me a bit more stable at the crease, a bit more balanced and more selective as well. I feel like I'm tightening my technique up quite a bit and I feel as if I've been playing spin really well on this trip.

"I've probably always been more of a batsman than I was a bowler. Getting picked in different teams in those roles was very special. The first two Tests I played, I played as a bowler. It's a bit different now to come in as a No. 5 specialist batter and that's something I've worked really hard on in the last couple of years, tightening my technique up and becoming more balanced and getting big runs."

When Smith last played a Test he was 21 years old. He is only 23 now. There is still plenty of time for him to gain maturity. But for the time being, he has the chance to show what he has learnt over the past two years. It's good to be in the right place at the right time, but pointless unless you grab the chance when it's presented.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • GeoffreysMother on March 15, 2013, 13:12 GMT

    I take it all back Smiffy - you're the next Hussey, if not Benaud. Totally dominated the spinners, Australia's problems all answered. Sorry - been listening to Channel 9 commentators again. Seriously though, you did well and look a much better batsman mentally and technically than a couple of years ago.

  • Dummy4 on March 15, 2013, 11:50 GMT

    @Kane Weston knows little about cricket. I first saw Steve Smith bat when he was 15 playing first grade for Sutherland when I went down to Glenn McGrath Oval to watch Phil Jaques, McGrath et al play against Fairfield-Liverpool. Smith was all class and was an opening batsman at that point. Someone thought he should be a leg-spinning all-rounder and almost ruined him. He is a better batsman than Hughes who I first saw at age 13 in Grafton when he was playing for Nambucca-Bellingen in rep cricket. Both good players but Smith was better. It would be good to hear some comments from people that know something about the game and have watched cricket at close hand at all levels of the game....

  • Dummy4 on March 15, 2013, 10:13 GMT

    Smith is a club cricketer who is doing ok for his state nothing more its sad that he ever got to play for Australia, when anyone who knows anything about cricket knew he was never going to be good enough but that's not his fault it's the selectors fault. I hope he can make some runs in this test to repay "true" Australian cricket fans for having to watch him in the first place but hope he never plays for Australia again and hope our poor little selectors can start picking the right players regardless of their personal feelings towards them.

  • Satish on March 15, 2013, 9:28 GMT

    A huge Stevie Smith fan here he makes it to the OZ 11 in these condition before Hughes,Usman and Maxwell(yes its a ironical mention here).But so happy Smith finally came back under what so ever condition.Hope he Becomes the next Mike Hussey or even better in years to come!

  • Ronald on March 15, 2013, 7:10 GMT

    The fact that Smith was even selected to go to India simply highlights the ineptitude of Australia's cricket management. Smith has been given numerous opportunities in all formats of international cricket & has never succeeded in any of them yet he keeps getting selected. It beggers belief.

  • Dummy4 on March 15, 2013, 4:51 GMT

    He'll be fine, especially if we use the current batsmen's form as a guide. I'd bet good money on him picking up a 50 in this test match. In fact the way Australia has been playing so far in this tour I'd say Smith at 5 and Haddin at 6 is better option that what we've seen so far. If Hughes wasn't such a liability they could almost assure themselves of 300 in every innings and that's enough to be moderately competitive.

  • John on March 15, 2013, 4:41 GMT

    @Mitty2 on (March 14, 2013, 11:50 GMT), "it baffles me how we could score scores of over 550 and 600 against the worlds best bowling attack when the cupboard is so bare". The reason is obvious: Clarke and Hussey. Cowan scored a hundred in one of those big totals and Warner in the other while Clarke and Hussey, both class batsmen, scored big in both while noone else did much of anything. Hussey is gone and we're now seeing what happens when Clarke is the only one who can score regularly.

  • Dummy4 on March 15, 2013, 3:22 GMT

    Alex Doolan and George Bailey would have been better options. Smith is not going to do any damage. Aussies will be out by stumps today for under 220

  • Tim on March 15, 2013, 3:06 GMT

    I thought Steve Smith was going to be Australia's leg spin option but this has not happened although he is still young.

    It took a young Steve Waugh a long time to settle into test cricket so maybe Steve Smith can take some heart from this.

  • Paul on March 15, 2013, 1:10 GMT

    Just when I thought I couldnt laugh any more!

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