The Steven Smith question
What is Steven Smith? Until Michael Clarke's latest adventure into the gossip pages it was the question in Australian cricket. It is also a familiar one that is often wondered about Cameron White. Are they legspinners who are handy batsmen, or the other way around?
Australia's selectors see Smith as an allrounder in every aspect, with the chairman Andrew Hilditch saying the 20-year-old was picked in the Test squad for New Zealand because of his "exciting stroke-play, legspin bowling and gifted fielding". The absence of a glowing adjective before "legspin bowling" appears intentional.
Smith is having regular tutorials with Shane Warne and was called into the Test squad at home when Nathan Hauritz was in doubt in Perth and Melbourne. He has debuted in both Twenty20s and ODIs and delivered cool spells under pressure, but he has been picked in the Test squad with a first-class bowling average of 62.26. Like White, Smith has one major deficiency as a legspinner: he doesn't have a big-turning ball.
That weakness ruled out White as a slow bowler after four Tests in India in 2008 when the selectors tried to manufacture a long-term weapon. He has barely been used in a game since. It is no fun following the era of Warne and Stuart MacGill, who could turn it square.
"Smith is a batsman without the big legbreak needed for Tests," Kerry O'Keeffe told Cricinfo. "He tends to find a way to winkle batsmen out. I applaud the selection. He can make runs at No.6 and be eased into the side and develop his bowling further so he can be used as a second spinner behind Hauritz."
O'Keeffe, who played 24 Tests as a legspinner in the 1970s, said Smith had a greater feel for slow bowling than White, who began his career tagged as the next Warne. "I see Smith as a No.6 who offers much more with the ball than Michael Clarke or Simon Katich," he said.
Terry Jenner, another former Test legspinner, said in December Smith was not ready for Test action, calling his initial squad selection "bewildering" and "illogical". "When he gets everything right he has a magnificent leg break, and he's still working through that," Jenner said. "He can't be consistent yet because he's only a kid."
O'Keeffe and Jenner have watched a string of spinners with potential be washed away since Warne retired, including Dan Cullen, Cullen Bailey, Jason Krejza and Beau Casson. Smith has two ways of getting into the side for next week's first Test in Wellington: wriggling in ahead of the out-of-form Marcus North or replacing Clarke if he stays at home. The second option is extremely unlikely and the incumbent North is expected to have another chance to secure his place.
With the bat Smith can be a brute and he has excelled in all forms this season. Last week he scored 177 for New South Wales in Hobart to convince Hilditch and Co he was ready. After adding 72 not out against South Australia at the SCG on Wednesday he took his Sheffield Shield tally to a mightily impressive 744 at 82.66.
"As an old fuddy-duddy, I worry about the batting technique with White and Smith when the ball does a bit," O'Keeffe said. "The technique they have has shortcomings when the ball darts around, but that only happens once a year." Smith will be analysed heavily whatever he does.
Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo