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Why we should all give Steven Smith a break

Steven Smith kisses the crest on his helmet after reaching his 15th Test century AFP

A captain should stand up and be responsible for his team, Matthew Hayden said on Saturday. Steven Smith, in Hayden's mind, should not have returned home from the one-day series in Sri Lanka for a rest. The captain should call the shots, not the coach or selectors or high-performance staff. Hayden calls the whole thing "absolute horseshit". Ex-players often get on their high horse, but if Hayden's was any higher it would be a giraffe.

"Some of your best performances are always those that come when you have to bloody dig deep, and when you're in subcontinent conditions, mate, you're digging deep the entire time," Hayden said on radio station Triple M. He went on to invoke the "fabric of the baggy green". Well, that settles it, then. Just Aussie up the rhetoric, mate, mention the myth of the baggy green (even though the series in question is one-day cricket) and who can possibly argue?

But here's the thing about Matthew Hayden: he never once captained Australia, in any format. And here's the thing about Steven Smith: he is currently Australia's captain in every format. And if Smith was to play all of Australia's remaining matches for 2016, he would break the all-time record for captaining Australia in the most games in a calendar year. Not only that, he would do so in his first full year as skipper.

Smith has led Australia in 30 games this year across all formats, and there are 19 matches remaining. Imagine Smith played all of those games. Of all comers from all countries, only Sachin Tendulkar would have captained more internationals in a calendar year (51 in 1997) than Smith's 49. And how did that finish up for Tendulkar? He was sacked at the end of that year.

The Australian record was the 48 matches that Ricky Ponting led in in 2009. Did Ponting, in Hayden's words, call the shots that year? In fact Ponting not only rested in 2009, he rested on three separate occasions: first during the home Chappell-Hadlee Series in February, then for the whole of a limited-overs tour of the UAE, and finally during the limited-overs games in England and Scotland that followed the Ashes.

In any case, by 2009 Ponting was a leadership veteran, accustomed to the day-in day-out commitments that come with captaincy: the pre-match planning, the in-game decisions, the extra media responsibilities, the constant need to focus not only on your own performance but on the team as a whole. Only international captains can truly empathise with that workload - and Hayden is not in that group.

Smith this weekend marks one year in the job, and in that time Australia have played only three games he did not captain - all T20s during the home summer, before the T20 captaincy was taken away from Aaron Finch and handed to Smith. So Sunday's third ODI in Sri Lanka will be the first time Smith the captain has had a rest. Is that so much to ask?

We know from Smith's own comments that this break had been floated before the tour of Sri Lanka even started, and that he took some convincing to agree to it. Naturally a captain never wants to desert his side. Equally, a team's coach and selectors and management never want a captain to burn out. A bilateral one-day series is the logical time to have a break.

Hayden is not the only ex-player to have criticised the move. Michael Slater - another non-captain - tweeted that he did not understand the decision, and that "the captain should be there to the end". Perhaps a more qualified critic was Michael Clarke, an ex-captain who himself at times was rested. He tweeted that he would have liked Smith to stay until the ODI series was won, or if he had needed a break sooner, he should have gone home straight after the Tests.

Maybe that's true. Maybe the coach and selectors floated such a plan, Smith protested and staying on for a couple of ODIs was a compromise. What is certain is that after the next few weeks, there will be little chance for a rest for the remainder of the year. The final match in Sri Lanka is on September 9; the first ODI on a tour of South Africa is on September 27. Then comes the home summer.

There are of course those who sneered at national selector Rod Marsh's comments that Smith needed a rest ahead of the South Africa tour. Rest from one bilateral ODI series to prepare for another? Ridiculous, they said. But burnout is far more likely to occur at the end of a long, stressful and unsuccessful tour of the subcontinent than during a two-week trip to South Africa.

Absolute horseshit? Give us a break. And give Smith one too.