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Smith, Neser and two unexpected roles

Both were thrust in at the 11th hour because of Covid guidelines

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Australia's stand-in captain Steven Smith tosses the coin  •  CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

Australia's stand-in captain Steven Smith tosses the coin  •  CA/Cricket Australia/Getty Images

There were two people with positions they did not expect to have on the first morning of the second Ashes Test in Adelaide. Steven Smith was thrust back into the Australian captaincy at the 11th hour and Michael Neser was handed a debut many thought he'd bypass.
In the Covid era, situations develop and change quickly. Pat Cummins' pre-Test dinner (which was entirely within the rules set down by Cricket Australia) put in motion a chaotic 16 hours that resulted in Australia having their third Test captain in three matches and a bowling attack now stripped of two of the big three.
It added another chapter to Smith's storied career. Having been named Cummins' vice-captain last month there was always a strong chance he would step back into the top job at some point during their joint tenure, but not after one match and in the manner it happened. Smith spoke to Cummins amid the chaos and was told "it's your team this week."
"It's a huge honour, obviously," Smith said. "Been a pretty interesting morning, bit been going on."
He was warmly applauded by the crowd when he came out for the toss wearing what appeared to be Cummins' blazer. There are still those who feel he should not have been granted a leadership position again after the ball-tampering scandal, but he has served his time and life has to move on. Over the last year or so, soundings have been taken from across the game by Cricket Australia about a potential return to the captaincy for Smith with the overall view that he would be accepted.
"He, by his own admission, has grown a lot as a person, and has done a huge amount of good work in the community," Cricket Australia chief executive Nick Hockley said. "I'd say we've run a really thorough process for these latest leadership positions, and certainly national selection panel and the board we felt that he demonstrated he was absolutely fit to hold a leadership position again."
Smith will be captaining a bowling attack that has been shorn of 386 wickets compared to the one on the field in Brisbane. Josh Hazlewood's absence was known a few days ago, but the loss of Cummins has left Mitchell Starc to lead the line alongside Jhye Richardson in his third Test and Neser on debut.
Neser had lost out to Richardson as Hazlewood's replacement and it was all set for him to add another Test to his tally as drinks career which stands on at least a dozen. He couldn't force his way into the line-up on the 2019 Ashes, during the following home summer against New Zealand James Pattinson played when Hazlewood was injured and last season the attack was unchanged against India.
Since being first included in an Australia squad in 2018, Neser has taken 144 first-class wickets at 21.01 and last week was Player of the Match when Australia A beat England Lions. He should not be out of his depth.
The last-minute nature of the situation meant Neser could not have his family present and the cap presentation by Glenn McGrath - a player also associated with a last-minute scratching from a Test side when he famously twisted his ankle on stray ball moments before the toss at Edgbaston in 2005 - was streamed back to Queensland. Few of the 461 male players to be handed the baggy green before him can have done it quite such a bizarre scenario.
"You get your opportunity for different reasons, there's no doubt about that," McGrath told the Seven Network. "But you're there because of the work you've put in leading into this moment. The reason you got picked is because of the way you bowled. Just do exactly the same out in the middle and just enjoy it."
As someone who loves to bat and bat in the nets, Smith has had plenty of first-hand experience of the off-field work Neser has put in.
"I'm really excited for him," he said. "He's worked his backside off for a long time, been 12th man a dozen times. He gets his opportunity, and we're all looking forward to playing with him this week. It's a great moment for him."
From the disrupted build-up, Covid-related uncertainties and Tim Paine's resignation this had already been an Ashes series like few others. And there's every chance that the drama on the opening day in Adelaide is not the last twist to come.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo