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Analysis

Takeaways - Smith waits for World Cup ticket, Marsh puts in bowling spells

New Zealand had a poor fielding show in the series but will be excited about their fast-bowling trio

Andrew McGlashan
Andrew McGlashan
25-Feb-2024
Australia have effectively completed their T20 World Cup preparations with the series in New Zealand their final outing as a collective, although a number of key names will feature in the IPL. For the home side, they have a series against Pakistan in April which will be another opportunity for those not in the IPL to find form or stake a late claim for selection. Here are a few things that stood out from the Chappell-Hadlee series

The Steven Smith question

It is the major selection issue still hanging over Australia's largely settled squad ahead of the World Cup. Is there a place for Steven Smith? It is very hard to see how he gets into the starting XI if everyone is fit with David Warner, Travis Head and Mitchell Marsh inked in at Nos. 1-3 and there's a strong argument to say his game doesn't fit lower down the order, albeit he doesn't lack boundary-clearing ability.
So it appears to come down to whether he is one of the best back-up players Australia can take to the Caribbean (they don't play any games in the USA). He had two chances against New Zealand and ended with scores of 11 and 4. In his defence, he received two good deliveries: a ripping inswinger from Lockie Ferguson and one which bounced from Adam Milne.
"How he goes in those opportunities, I think will dictate what happens," coach Andrew McDonald had said before the second game. "There's competition for places and that's a good problem to have. We're playing him for a reason. If he wasn't in our thinking then he wouldn't be on the plane over here. There's 20-plus players that are in our thinking. We're not settled in terms of the final 15 at this stage."
Smith's overall experience will work in his favour - the management will know he won't be overawed by the pressures of a World Cup if he has to come in at short notice - and there is also a thought of covering for the potential of coming up against slower, lower pitches where a batter like Smith may be valuable in guiding an innings. Although, again, who he would replace in the XI is tricky to see.
This series was Smith's last T20 cricket before the World Cup as he doesn't have an IPL deal. There is every chance he will make the cut, but if Cameron Green puts together a strong tournament in India it could make for an interesting call. Matthew Short also gave a glimpse of his power in Auckland and provides handy spin.
"It's going to be tough to squeeze in that 15 whoever you are," Matthew Wade said after captaining the last T20I. "Obviously Smithy hasn't played a heap of T20 cricket in the last little bit for Australia. There'll be chats around those final few positions. Fingers crossed he makes it but there's always going to be someone who's unlucky. Not sure who that will be this time."

Ferguson, Milne, Sears: New Zealand's 140kph trio

It's fair to say that New Zealand had never fielded a faster combination of bowlers than when Milne, Ferguson and Ben Sears played together in the first game at Eden Park. All three were breaking 140kph and regularly pushing 145kph. Dibbly-Dobbly-Wibbly-Wobbly this was not.
Milne and Ferguson are both very experienced but that was only the 11th T20I they had played together. Adding Sears into the mix makes for an intoxicating combination in a format where pace is often at a premium.
"Couldn't see the ball, it was going so quick," coach Gary Stead joked. "It was great. You've got a couple of experienced guys in Lockie and Adam and then a young guy in Ben that's coming through that is equally as exciting in the way that he's progressing in the international game. I'm sure that he will continue to go from strength to strength."
Ferguson led the way and was outstanding in both the matches he played, while Sears was very good in the first Eden Park outing where he claimed Head and Glenn Maxwell. He has a good celebration on him as well. If he has a productive T20 series in Pakistan in April it could give the selectors plenty to ponder.
"You just go out there and try and execute your ball and see wherever that goes," Sears said. "It's Twenty20 cricket - anything can happen."

Mitchell Marsh's bowling

Australia's captain for the series (and very likely for the World Cup) had a significant role to play with the ball in his two outings. In Wellington, Marsh, who was named Player of the Series, returned 1 for 21 from three overs when almost everyone else went around the park and gave himself that third over when the match-up wasn't favourable for Adam Zampa. In Auckland he again sent down three overs as part of an impressive display from Australia's seamers on Friday.
Marsh's body has not always allowed him to play a full role as a bowler, and he will need to be carefully managed for the remainder of his career. But the ankle surgery he had last year was to give him the best chance of being as much of an allrounder as possible. It will further help Australia balance their side if Marsh is a viable fourth seam option behind the big three.
In New Zealand they were without Marcus Stoinis who has been important with the ball in a similar role and there is a good chance he will slot back into the middle order come the World Cup. However, he sometimes struggles to back-up between games, especially in a tight schedule, so it could be that he and Marsh effectively share the role.

Is the catching a concern?

New Zealand are renowned as an excellent fielding side, but they weren't at their best in this series. At least seven chances went down and the ones missed in Wellington, while not all simple, were the difference in a last-ball thriller. In the final game in Auckland, Josh Clarkson and Ish Sodhi spilled catches in quick succession that certainly should have been taken.
"It's a controllable," Mitchell Santner said. "At night it can be quite challenging to catch, but it was during the day today. It's one of those ones that can change games quite quickly. Giving guys like Travis Head a couple of lives and Mitch Marsh the other night, it's hard to wrestle the momentum back."
Australia, in contrast, were excellent with Wade's spectacular running catch in the first game at Eden Park the standout. In the rain-effected final outing there were also very sharp in slippery conditions with Josh Inglis and Mitchell Starc taking well-judged chances.
In a format of small margins, fielding could be the difference come the World Cup.

Andrew McGlashan is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo