May 1, 2013

Australia's quest for a leader

The most significant leadership appointment of their winter tours to England may not have been for the Ashes

It has been said of Michael Clarke, in terms both admiring and disparaging, that he prepared to become Australia's captain almost from the day of his birth. Fastidiously developing himself as a cricketer and on-field ringleader, Clarke did all the right things in his teenage years and early 20s to ensure that not long after his recall to the Test side in 2006, it became patently clear to the chairman of selectors, Andrew Hilditch, that he would be the man to succeed Ricky Ponting.

In some ways, Clarke's waiting period for the job was thankless, coinciding with a period of low regard for him among the public and some players. To be deputy to a towering figure in Australian cricket is no easy thing - just ask Mark Taylor about the years he was Allan Border's vice-captain for a reminder that even a leader as universally admired as "Tubby" was temporarily cast as a plodding, methodical heir apparent, lacking the public affection that Border enjoyed in his latter years.

But the sense that Australia had an obvious captain-in-waiting was also reassuring, not least for the selectors. As Hilditch dealt somewhat awkwardly with the national team's slide from pre-eminence to mediocrity, he was at least certain who the next leader would be, and groomed him with appointments for T20 internationals and limited-overs assignments. Clarke had the chance to try the role on for size while still young enough to see a long future ahead, and to recognise that there was more to leadership than setting an apt field for the incoming batsman.

Now, as Clarke is about to embark upon the dual Ashes series that will play a large part in defining his captaincy, Hilditch's successor John Inverarity is looking with increasing urgency for players to whom he could attach a similar level of confidence about leadership. It is proving a highly difficult task.

Inverarity's panel chose a pair of thirtysomethings, each steeped in captaincy at Sheffield Shield level, to be Clarke's lieutenants in the Ashes and the Champions Trophy. Brad Haddin and George Bailey are among the best leadership stock Australian cricket currently possesses, but unless the former defies age in the manner of Graham Gooch or the latter belatedly finds a way to churn out the runs that would demand selection, neither is long-term Test captaincy material.

Haddin's role was expanded beyond that of Clarke's deputy during the Ashes to include the leadership of the Australia A squad, who will gain valuable English experience in whites against the Dukes ball while Clarke attempts to win Australia's third successive Champions Trophy.

The appointments of Clarke, Haddin and Bailey therefore left only one leadership position of any sort to be bestowed upon a young player. To be vice-captain of Australia A may not sound like much, but the selectors' choice of Steve Smith was instructive. While Inverarity noted "we couldn't fit Steve in" the Test squad for England, this does not mean he is far from calculations for the future. On the contrary, Smith is actually the closest thing Australian cricket has right now to a national captain in training.

Smith's promise as a leader and a batsman is modest when lined up against that of Clarke at a similar age, but it is far more than can be said for most of his contemporaries

For many, this may come as a shock. Smith's dancing feet and occasionally impulsive dabbles outside off stump have not yet suggested a great deal of gravitas or even permanence at the Test match batting crease. Much of his career thus far has been dominated by debate about what he actually does. He was always considered a batting allrounder within New South Wales, but his hard-spun legbreaks momentarily shoehorned him into the role as No. 1 spinner for Australia, a case of mistaken identity to rival that of Cameron White.

Yet there have been flashes of leadership potential. Guided by the wise heads of Haddin and Trevor Bayliss at the Sydney Sixers, Smith captained adroitly in the inaugural Big Bash League, helping his team seize their moments after a merely passable qualifying campaign, and then showcasing his boyish grin while lifting the trophy in Perth. Blues team-mates regard Smith as an excellent tactician in the field, and have also been impressed by the gradual but unmistakeable tightening of his batting. If the selectors worried that he was not yet sturdy enough to counter the swinging, seaming ball at Trent Bridge in 2013, they are hopeful there will be no such problem by the time of the next tour, in 2015.

Smith's promise as a leader and a batsman is modest when lined up against that of Clarke at a similar age, but it is far more than can be said for most of his contemporaries. David Warner's brush with the ODI vice-captaincy was brief and has not been repeated. Matthew Wade and Tim Paine have shown a decent combination of steel and smarts at various times, but have the disadvantage of keeping wicket - invariably considered a better position from which to advise than to lead. In Western Australia, Mitchell Marsh has been spoken of for what he might one day accomplish as a leader, but is only now re-emerging as a viable selection option after a year of indiscipline. And that, more or less, is that.

Australia's leadership dearth is every bit as glaring as the hole that has opened up in the nation's batting stocks, and the two issues are not unrelated. Prolific, consistent batsmen have traditionally assumed the captaincy after apprenticeships either domestic or international in nature - see Bradman, Hassett, Simpson, Lawry, the brothers Chappell, Hughes, Border, Taylor, Waugh, Ponting and Clarke. But how to groom a batsman for leadership if he is torn between multiple formats or not even making the requisite runs to claim a consistent domestic place? To that end, Cricket Australia and the selectors are trying to encourage a kind of affirmative action among the states, elevating younger players to more senior positions while also submitting them to leadership training of various kinds.

"It used to be a lot of the Sheffield Shield captains were in the Australian team and getting that leadership experience," Inverarity said when naming the Champions Trophy 15. "We've got to look to get leadership experience in other areas. We've got Steve Smith, who will be vice-captain of Australia A, Ed Cowan was captain of Australia A in England last year. We need to look to give these players various opportunities but also Cricket Australia is investing time and opportunity in a number of players having leadership skills professional development. We need to develop that."

Inverarity went on to refer to "an open field", which seemed a gross understatement. The field is so open that should Clarke decide to conclude his career earlier than most expect, or should his tender back force him to do so, the captaincy would most likely have to pass for a year or two at least to a solid citizen such as Ed Cowan or Bailey. But beyond the short-term, the most obvious next man is Smith, a developing 23-year-old batsman who did not even make the Ashes tour.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mark on May 4, 2013, 7:32 GMT

    @WeirPicki - I think Paine has been passed over because he was out with major thumb injury for quite a long time. I imagine they are wanting to see some form and consistency out of him before recalling him.

    I do agree that Paine is the best of the lot with the gloves, and is better than Wade with the bat (at least for test cricket, Wade is good for the shorter formats). Wade drops way too many catches and misses way too many stumpings, I would not be upset if he never played another test match.

  • Scott on May 3, 2013, 11:32 GMT

    @?FB_poster, I think you'll find I'm not way off the mark, and if his 2012/13 sheffield shield stats, ie, his last 12 months in FC cricket, are anything to go by, then you'd be foolhardy to believe he's anywhere near test level with the bat. He made 296 runs in 8 innings at 37...He's not even close to being selected as a batsman. But he's young, and he has a chance to make runs this year. He's a good player of spin, which is why he was on the tour of India...not so great against pace and movement and has a loose technique. It's a bit tough dropping the bloke after he outperformed a few others in India, granted, but at present when we're not playing in India, there's better options available to us...

  • Weir on May 3, 2013, 3:46 GMT

    If Steve Smith is the answer then we are looking down the barrel of the worst period in Australian cricket history. The only part of his game that is remotely Test standard is his fielding. What on Earth has Tim Paine done to upset the selectors? He's far, far better than both Haddin and Wade as a gloveman and his batting is more than handy too. The selectors have lost the plot.

  • Dummy4 on May 3, 2013, 3:25 GMT

    I think ScottStevo is way off the mark. Have you seen Smith bat in a four day game in the last year or so? Steve Smith has had a very good last couple of seasons in the context of first-class wickets in Australia being bowler friendly. He was also our best batsman in India after Clarke so he has been unlucky to be omitted from the Test squad. He is also a far better batsman than Hughes and even Khawaja now. Smith is the best leader amongst the younger guys in Oz cricket so his ascension to the vice-captaincy of Australia A is hardly coincidental....

  • Peter on May 2, 2013, 23:25 GMT

    @landl47 I can't comment on Root as I have seen him for an hour in one test match, but as you recount, his figures are heading the direction so good luck to him. I would & will always question average comparison unless they are in the same team playing on the same pitches. Smith, being from NSW, consistently plays on low turning wickets so batsmen really do earn their runs when they score well there, unlike a couple of other grounds over here (Hughes, for example gladly accepted the different pitch conditions, as did Khawaja). I have been watching Smith for a number of years now & have commented on the improved technique & hard work he has done on his batting. He is no long that crude front foot thrasher of a few years ago, as seen in recent Indian series. Many were surprised by his improved style, I wasn't as I have seen it evolve, & in him I definitely see the seeds of a future leader in waiting. He will move up the order a little in time, he has a good head on him.

  • Dummy4 on May 2, 2013, 19:44 GMT

    @Landl47, I think you are reading too much into my posts, mate! All i've done is to point out the similarities in the records of the two players, the big difference between the two is that Root is now being fast tracked at every opportunity and backed by everyone in England. By comparison Smith has had the run-around well and truly and would probably benefit greatly from a bit of faith (my original point) and an extended run in either the ODI or test team. Yes he's a little older but still no more experienced at FC/Test level due to spending a lot of his first few seasons in and around the ODI team. Will he or Root turn out to be the better international batsman? I have absolutely no idea!

  • Ashesh on May 2, 2013, 18:04 GMT

    I guess the Australian parliament has legislated against wicket keepers or bowlers from being considered for captaincy! There are a few good bowlers who seem to have leadership potential and while batsmen may be given preference, in the current situation it seems daft not to entertain the possibility. Imran Khan and Rcihie Benaud were all time great capotains; Kapil Dev was decent - won a world cup in which his inspiration and 175* were crucial; MS Dhoni has proven to be one of the better skippers in world cricket and definatley an all time great India captain. That the above are all rounders shouled go against them as theoretically they are further burdened. Even looking at predominantly bowlers post Imran Wasim Akram was the best captain till off field issues intervened, likwise Kumble proved himself beyond doubt as a capable and effective captian in the short time available to him. Rather then scraping the barrel with unproven batsman the aussies atleast think for the bowlers or wk.

  • John on May 2, 2013, 14:44 GMT

    @Jono Makim: Oh, so you missed the current match then- the one where Root scored 236? Root's career is progressing rapidly. He's already got more hundreds than Smith, and his average, on the strength of the current game, is now up to 42.64. Smith's average has been declining for the last 3 years, although it declined less last season, so he's making progress.

    However, if you believe Smith's as good or better than Root, that's your prerogative. Let's see how their careers go over the next few years. Time will tell.

  • Scott on May 2, 2013, 12:32 GMT

    This article is complete trash. For starters, Smith isn't good enough a player to even consider for the test side as yet and unless he scores a heck of runs, shouldn't be considered as his bowling is almost as bad as this article. The only reason Smith moved into contention was that he was an all-rounder - something with CA management seem to hold in high regard of recent times. Why this search for a 5th bowler in the team, unknown? Once it was recognised that his spin was terrible, he's had to declare himself a front line batsmen. In which case, there are several other batsmen in Aus in the queue ahead of Smith. Lastly, why is there such emphasis on the role of captain? Most times a leader will come to the fore when required. As for the on field duties of a captain, just about any one of these guys are capable of selecting bowlers and discussing field placings - albeit if they've not been predetermined from pre-match analysis....

  • Dwight on May 2, 2013, 12:30 GMT

    Clarke is the last of the old school australian breed of cricketer in which they dominated for decades, at 32 he can/should lead australia till the 2019 WC, unless someone really steps up in the Aussie camp, I would invest in David Warner to take over from him, only 26 & an elite opener he would be only 32 should Clarke leave after the 2019 WC.