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News Analysis

Steven Smith's T20 role among question marks for Sri Lanka series

What part will Ashton Agar and the Richardsons play in Australia's side?

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
Australia's T20 players flew out to Sri Lanka on Wednesday with an eye on their World Cup title defence in October. There are no significant changes expected to the squad for that tournament but there is still time - and plenty of matches - for things to be different. For a number of players, this three-game series starting on June 7 carries some extra significance.
Barring injury, Aaron Finch will be captaining Australia at the T20 World. Of that, there is no doubt. The question is how much baggage he takes into the tournament and that will be decided over the team's busy run-in, starting with these three matches in Sri Lanka. Things haven't been right for Finch for quite some time - despite the occasional glimpse of his old self - and former team-mate Shane Watson was forceful in his assessment of where it leaves him. The quick turnaround between World Cups has probably worked in his favour with Australia reluctant to rip up a successful script, and a return to form over the coming months will put the debate to bed. Another of the favourites for the title, England, have a very similar situation with their captain Eoin Morgan who is clouded by form and fitness questions. Rob Key, the new managing director of England men's cricket, recently said: "If you've got a great captain, which Eoin Morgan is, that's like playing with 12." There is the same sentiment around the role Finch plays, but fending off questions around form leading into a global event is not the ideal position to be in.
Steven Smith's position in Australia's T20 side has become a familiar debate. There is certainly not a one-size-fits-all when it comes to building a batting order, but the question remains whether there is a place for the 'fix it' role often prescribed to Smith - particularly with other batters pushing for inclusion. Josh Inglis, for one, has looked immediately at home batting at No. 3 and 5. In Smith's defence, it has been difficult for him to get any continuity in the format. Most recently he suffered concussion in the series against Sri Lanka in February and then missed the one-off game in Pakistan to manage his elbow problem. He didn't feature in the BBL, despite a last-ditch attempt and didn't get an IPL deal. In 15 T20Is since September 2020, Smith has a strike rate of 110.21. In the nine matches prior to that, when he returned to the side after a gap of more than three years, he had a strike rate of 147.92. Does that Steven Smith still exist?
Ashton Agar was the casualty of Australia's late change of balance for the T20 World Cup when they opted for seven batters instead of five frontline bowlers. He was recalled to face England, an odd decision that saw Mitchell Marsh left out, and though he played three matches against Sri Lanka, in February earlier this year - where he also briefly opened the batting - what role he has in a first-choice XI remains uncertain. This, despite an economy rate of 6.50 which makes him Australia's most thrifty bowler to have played substantially in the format. The tour of Sri Lanka should give Agar a decent run with spin-conducive conditions and the absence of Adam Zampa. There is also a thought that come the World Cup the larger grounds in Australia will bring him back into the mix although it would likely still need Australia to revert to five bowlers.
Like Agar, Kane Richardson was on the sidelines of Australia's T20 World Cup triumph with the big three quicks - Mitchell Starc, Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins - locked in. The smart money is on those three again being the chosen ones come October. But Cummins is not part of the T20 series in Sri Lanka, so there may be a little opening for Richardson, who dropped off the CA contract list in April, to get into the XI if Australia maintain three frontline quicks. Regardless, with the amount of cricket coming up, Australia are likely to need their depth of pace bowlers. Richardson was Australia's joint-leading wicket-taker against Sri Lanka in February with eight scalps, albeit at a rather high economy of 8.74, in what were his first internationals for almost a year. He was then ruled out of the Pakistan tour with a recurrence of a hamstring injury and since then has also moved from South Australia to Queensland. At 31, his is a career that feels in need of a kickstart.
As with his namesake, it's been a mixed time of late for Jhye Richardson, who was the most notable omission from the contract list after a season where he starred in the Ashes Test in Adelaide after which injury kept him off the park until late January. On his return, he helped Perth Scorchers to the BBL title and he made two appearances in the T20I series against Sri Lanka before a mutual decision was reached for him not to be considered for Pakistan. He is only part of the full side for the T20I portion of this tour before switching to the Australia A squad. It may yet be a battle of the Richardsons for the World Cup.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo