What Smith, Warner reintegration really means

Steven Smith and David Warner still face challenges on their international returns Getty Images and Cricket Australia

"It's like we didn't really leave," gushed David Warner.

"It's almost like we never left, so everything is on the right track," enthused Steven Smith.

"It's like two brothers coming back home," intoned Justin Langer.

Taking at face value Cricket Australia's video news release, conveyed by jovial on-camera dialogue between the team media manager to the two banned batsmen and their coach in Dubai, there seemed little need for Warner and Smith to be involved in a "reintegration process" at all.

Yet the "nothing's changed, nothing to see here" bonhomie of all this achieved little in trying to mask the obvious fact that there remains plenty of work to be done to return Warner and Smith to the national team, not least in ensuring that the two former leaders are able to resume in very different roles than those they left behind at the time of the Newlands scandal.

For a start, Warner and Smith return not as commanders, but as subordinates to the national captains Aaron Finch, Tim Paine, and Langer as head coach. In the case of Smith, there will be no option of leadership roles for another 12 months; in the case of Warner, never again in his international career.

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Some former captains return to the ranks more smoothly than others - Ricky Ponting's final two seasons after surrendering the leadership to Michael Clarke come to mind as one decent example of getting it right, and Shane Warne was able to function as a bowler separate from the Australian team's leadership in the years after he was sacked as vice-captain. David Gower's ill-fated time as a foot soldier under Graham Gooch for England in the early 1990s stands as a high profile instance of getting it wrong.

Setting of good examples while acceding to team plans will be vital here, as will the sense among the rest of the team that Warner and Smith make their returns as unconditional supporters of the regime that has followed the collapse of their own, shared as it was with the former coach Darren Lehmann. They will doubtless be sources of advice at times, given vast experience, but should at first be careful to provide it only when asked.

Reports that the Australian ODI squad was given the opportunity to ask Warner and Smith any questions they may have had recalled the awkwardness of Wayne Phillips, Graeme Wood and Murray Bennett fronting fellow members of Allan Border's 1985 Ashes squad after they had changed their minds regarding participation in that year's South African rebel tour. But whatever was said in that enclosed environment will be less important than how Warner and Smith play out their actions over ensuing weeks, months and years.

There were some unsettling moments during the bans that suggested Smith in particular was not quite clear on where he now stood. The timing of a press conference and Fox Cricket interview to coincide with the launching of an overwrought phone commercial was clumsy at best and a major distraction for the Test team at worst, while the pronouncements of his manager about Smith's plan to play in the World Cup, disregarding his own uncertain fitness and decidedly underwhelming returns in his previous 10 ODIs, sounded something like entitlement.

"A related issue is that Warner and Smith, by their very presence, will invite questions about an issue that CA contained last year without ever quite resolving. Undoubtedly they will be asked about how long the ball tampering had been going on for, and with who's knowledge"

Following his initial difficulties in eliciting the sort of sympathy Smith won from a tearful return home press conference in April last year, Warner has at least managed to keep quiet and score runs wherever he has been permitted to play - 443 at 34.07 and a strike rate of 120.70 across the Caribbean and Bangladesh Premier Leagues, plus a surfeit of runs at club level. He is, however, coming from a lot further back. Even on the day his ban was announced there seemed little question of Smith coming back, but rather more of Warner after he was isolated as the epicentre of both Australia's ball tampering and the team's poor behavioural reputation around the world.

A related issue is that Warner and Smith, by their very presence, will invite questions about an issue that CA contained last year without ever quite resolving. Undoubtedly they will be asked about how long the ball tampering had been going on for, and with who's knowledge. Unquestionably the world's media, particularly that voracious English tabloids, will seek further opportunities to probe the issue - environments as controlled as the Dubai video news release will be nigh on impossible to come by during the World Cup and the Ashes.

Winning, of course, will help to write fresh history rather than inviting questions about older events, but here too lies a challenge. Having played precious little top level cricket in the past 12 months, and now recovering from elbow injuries of varying severity, Warner and Smith must demonstrate their quality has not been diminished by the time away. To some it has seemed tantamount to blasphemy to query whether or not Smith in particular, his elbow only recently removed from a brace, will be an automatic selection for the World Cup. Yet no less clear-eyed an observer than Ricky Ponting, soon to assist Langer at the World Cup, has suggested just that ahead of their IPL duties.

Fielding will be one major question mark, given the elbow problems they have faced. In India, fast, agile and alert fielding was emblematic of the work Langer and the assistant Brad Haddin have put into ensuring Australia will return to their former reputation for predatory defending. Ashton Turner's explosive batting obscured the fact that he could not go to the outfield due to his own problematic shoulder, so it will be a poser for all to see how many more sub-par fielders Langer and Finch can accommodate.

Amid all the backslapping and brotherhood talk in Dubai, Langer also admitted that both Warner and Smith needed time to re-adjust to higher playing demands during the IPL. "It's like when you have a pre-season you can be Hawaiian Ironman fit, but you get sore when you start playing your first game of cricket," he said. "For them it'll just be getting back into the rhythm of high class cricket and I'm sure they'll get plenty out of that."

One of the more revealing things Langer has said since becoming coach last May tumbled forth at the end of the rousing ODI series victory over India when asked about Usman Khawaja.

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"I daresay there's no way that 10-12 months ago, Usman Khawaja would have two hundreds and a 90 and still be fresh as a daisy in the field," Langer said. "I remember I was sitting in my driveway at home, probably a few days after I got appointed coach and he was one of the first people I spoke to. He wanted to know where he was at with white-ball cricket.

"I just said, 'the reality is I don't want you to get fit to tick a box or to please me, or Pat Howard, or Queensland Cricket or Cricket Australia. Do it so you can run harder between the wickets and field better, because we know you're talented.' He scores hundreds, and we've talked about having batsmen who can score hundreds in our top four. So he was rewarded for it, and he's paying us back in spades at the moment."

Khawaja's efforts, as much as anyone else's, provide the perfect example of how Smith and Warner need to find the best ways to fit into the team and perform, rather than the other way round. There are others too: Adam Zampa developing a better leg-break, Nathan Lyon's "bowl ugly" mantra, and Pat Cummins adjusting his once-in-a-generation bowling skill to become the ODI force the team needs.

Another instance from the recent past that also bears thinking about is the seamless way in which George Bailey slipped from stand-in captain to drinks waiter during the 2015 World Cup once Clarke was fit enough to resume. Bailey has recalled, with much mirth, that in celebrations of that win he inadvertently broke the trophy. Team-mates who saw how he served the team either as leader or a reserve were happy to accept the momentary lapse given the extent of his selflessness beforehand. Beyond the Dubai platitudes, Warner and Smith must aim for similar standing.