Steven Smith closing in on Sussex spell as Ashes preparation
Australia batter has been in discussions to play "three or four games" of county cricket at start of summer
Steven Smith is moving closer to a County Championship deal with Sussex in pole position to acquire the Australia batter on a short-term deal for the start of the 2023 season.
A report in the Sydney Morning Herald on Thursday cited Hove as the likeliest destination for Smith, who has spent the last few months in discussions with county sides over a possible stint of "three or four games". ESPNcricinfo understands Smith was ideally looking at joining a club in Division One, with Kent seen as an ideal given his links to the county following a stint in club cricket at Sevenoaks Vine CC in 2007, which led to a one-off second-team appearance at Canterbury. However, the club's situation and Smith's availability did not align. No contract has yet been signed with Sussex, who play in Division Two, with a decision expected in the coming week.
The short-term deal would allow Smith to acclimatise to English conditions ahead of Australia's likely appearance in the World Test Championship final at the Kia Oval in June, along with the Ashes series that follows, beginning at Edgbaston on June 16. The 33-year-old is forgoing this year's IPL, a period he will use to return home after Australia's four-Test series in India which finishes in the middle of March.
This would be Smith's first red-ball experience in county cricket, and the pull of a player of his undoubted quality is all too clear. He averages 60.89 in Test cricket - a figure that only drops to 59.55 across 16 Tests in England - and has 30 centuries in the format. His previous dalliance with the English domestic game came in 2010 when he played five T20 matches for Worcestershire.
However in 2007, Smith was presented with the opportunity of forging a long-term future in English cricket when Surrey offered him a full-time contract after he was scouted by their first team coach at the time, Alan Butcher. Smith has British citizenship through his mother, Gillian, who was born in London, and ended up playing two matches for Surrey 2nd XI, but turned down the offer with a view to continuing his progression at New South Wales. His one-off appearance for Kent 2nd XI came earlier that summer. As it happens, Paul Farbrace, the new head coach at Sussex, was Kent's academy and 2nd XI coach at the time.
Smith's presence in the English domestic game will present a concern for the national team, offering vital preparation for a rival ahead of their attempts to reclaim the Ashes. Such a dilemma was put to Ben Stokes on the recent tour of Pakistan, and England's Test captain was conflicted on the matter.
"It's good for the county game to see players of Steve's calibre want to come over and play," Stokes said. "But I don't know. It's one of those where you probably prefer them not to get any game time in England before the Ashes. It is what it is."
However, Mo Bobat, ECB's performance director, insisted that the benefits of Smith's presence on the county circuit would cut both ways.
"You end up being fairly split," he said. "Any good player coming to our domestic system will raise the standard of it. In many ways it's good. It's good for our bowlers to bowl at Steve Smith. It's good for young batters to bat with him. There is upside.
"Specifically with the Ashes. Yeah, you could say it helps him prep and that could be a disadvantage to England. I don't spend too much time thinking about that. We just try to control what we can do. I think, and I'm sure that Brendon and Ben would be the same, if we play to our potential we know we are a match for anyone and can beat anyone, the way we are playing our cricket. We will focus on that.
"At times it's disappointing that our players aren't afforded the same opportunities overseas," Bobat added. "I'd love to get more of our players in first-class cricket overseas. It's notoriously difficult. It's not particularly easy in Australia, can't really do it in India, we've done it at times before in Sri Lanka. It's not an easy thing to do, but it would be nice if our players could sample a bit of that in red-ball cricket. It's not easy, though."
Should Smith sign for Sussex, he will be a replacement for Jayden Seales. The West Indian quick was due to be the club's second overseas player alongside India batter Cheteshwar Pujara, but has been ruled out of the start of the English summer after requiring surgery on an injury to his left knee.
It is understood Sussex, who went through a turbulent period under the joint coaching team of Ian Salisbury and James Kirtley before the appointment of Farbrace, are also looking to bring in Australia allrounder Sean Abbott on an all-format deal, and Pakistan legspinner Shadab Khan for the Vitality Blast.
Vithushan Ehantharajah is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo