Steven Smith's T20 World Cup role: resurrect batting if early wickets fall, drop down the order if top order succeeds
Smith's floating position is in part designed to overcome the challenging batting conditions on display in the UAE
Australia batter Steven Smith believes the T20 World Cup could become a scrap to the finish line rather than a cascade of boundaries as he beds into a new middle-order role that will be key to Australia overcoming conditions if they unfold that way.
The early stages of the Super 12s has seen a variety of outcomes, ranging from the blowouts of West Indies being dismissed for 55 and Scotland 60 to the relatively high-scoring contest between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka alongside Pakistan's wicketless chase against India.
Australia's opening match against South Africa in Abu Dhabi fell somewhere between the extremes as 118 provided a challenging chase and while Smith suggested two iffy batting displays played a part, he would not be surprised to see that template on show more regularly.
"Even throughout the IPL there was a lot of really scrappy cricket, not huge scores, which made the games pretty interesting and quite close," he said. "Slightly different to a lot of T20 cricket, quite often it's flat wickets and big scores, so you have to change slight ways you play and adapt according to what's required on that surface. It's been interesting so far.
"Don't think the other day 120 was indicative of the surface. Both teams bowled and fielded really well and probably didn't bat very well but do think we'll see plenty of scrappy cricket in this tournament."
Smith's floating position in Australia's batting order is in part designed to overcome those challenging conditions. In both warm-up matches against New Zealand and India, and then the opening group game against South Africa, Smith came in at No. 4 with Australia having lost early wickets in the powerplay. If the top three of David Warner, Aaron Finch and Mitchell Marsh fire collectively, Smith is likely to cede ground to Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis.
"It's a little bit different to what I've played previously, but my job basically is to fix it if our top order don't come off, then if our top order do go well the likelihood is I'll slide slightly down the order and let our big strong boys go out and attack it," he said. "Think I've done it pretty well in the first couple of trial games and our first game."
A renowned worker of the ball, Smith made 35 off 34 balls against South Africa and appeared set to take Australia closer to victory before a fine running catch by Aiden Markram ended his stay.
"Think you need ability to get off strike, manipulate the ball to certain areas more than just the power," Smith said. "Some of these wickets even the powerful blokes have struggled to hit sixes so you need some smarts about you, playing the situation, and having the ability to limit dot balls."
In the months leading up to this tournament - and the IPL which preceded it - Smith was recovering from a recurrence of the elbow problem he had suffered earlier in the year. At the start of his return to batting he was limited to 10-minute net sessions as part of a graduated comeback to manage the problem, which for someone with such a love of batting even outside of matches would not have come easily.
He is still managing his out-of-game workloads somewhat by not batting for three consecutive days at training but is confident he is over the problem ahead of the increased demands in the lead-up to the Ashes.
"On the days I'm batting I'm batting for as long as I want to which is really nice," he said. "I'm still taking it easy at the moment, just making sure I'm only batting two days in a row and I'll build up again as we get closer to playing longer format stuff."
Smith is comfortable he will have adequate preparation when the team returns from the T20 World Cup which will involve two weeks quarantine although training will be permitted. It remains to be confirmed whether the Australians will have a proper match ahead of the first Test at the Gabba on December 8 but a large squad is expected to decamp into Queensland to aid the build-up.
"It'll just be hitting plenty of balls in the lead-up," Smith said. "There's not too much else we can do in the times of the pandemic. We are going to be having some really solid centre-wickets and training sessions where I know our fast bowlers will be firing up getting themselves ready, so they'll be no shortage of quality practice."
Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo