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Who will captain Australia after Tim Paine? Does Steven Smith still have a chance?

Cricket Australia has to answer a number of questions before picking a replacement for Tim Paine

Ian Chappell
Ian Chappell
Tim Paine, Pat Cummins, Steven Smith and Marnus Labuschagne line up for the national anthem, Australia vs India, 1st Test, Adelaide, December 17, 2020

Is Tim Paine looking at the future captain of Australia?  •  Getty Images

The job of Australian captain is a much debated role. That is again the case now, following former captain Steven Smith's response to a query. "If the opportunity did come up again I would be keen," Smith said.
The opportunity to captain Australia should only arise when the incumbent, Tim Paine, is either incapacitated or decides he has had enough of an extremely demanding job. In Paine's case, he took over in extenuating circumstances, when Smith abrogated his duty by allowing a case of blatant cheating to occur under his watch. Since that time, Paine has done an admirable job of restoring Australia's cricketing reputation.
There are a number of questions Cricket Australia has to answer before deciding who permanently inherits the captaincy from Paine. The first one probably won't be answered, on the basis that it could be incriminating. Why didn't Smith and David Warner receive the same punishment regarding their captaincy future?
Smith and Warner were guilty of the same crime - cheating. If anything, Smith's crime was greater: when he witnessed the plot being hatched in the dressing room, he cynically said, "I don't want to know."
It's the captain's job to know what the team is up to at all times, and he should have put a stop to one of the worst, if not the worst, crime in the game.
So how come they received different punishments? Was Warner punished more severely because he was the prominent player spokesman during the last contracts MoU scuffle? It's always dangerous to assume, but this is a reasonable conclusion.
Next question: will the players accept Smith as their leader bearing in mind his serious error of judgement the last time he was in charge?
The incorrect answer is, "He's served his punishment so the slate is now clean." That might pass in a court of law, but it doesn't work that way in a cricket dressing room. Respect is a cricket captain's greatest ally and without it, he's floundering.
The correct question is, will the players unconditionally accept Smith as their captain? I'd be surprised if the answer was a unanimous yes.
The last question is simple. Who is the best candidate to lead Australia into the future?
The dilemma CA faces is the lack of obvious candidates to take over when Paine decides to retire. The current system for gauging potential captains is flawed and doesn't provide enough opportunities to test leadership skills in a less dramatic atmosphere.
The potential candidates - apart from Smith - are fast bowler Pat Cummins, batsmen Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne, and at a pinch, wicketkeeper Alex Carey. Of those players Cummins is best qualified as he has been vice-captain for some time. All things being equal, if the vice-captain doesn't inherit the role then why make the appointment?
Cummins' main attributes are that he's guaranteed a place and he's also the most inspirational player in the side. The only things counting against him are a lack of captaincy experience and his role as a fast bowler. Being a bowler-captain is an extremely demanding job, but it shouldn't automatically bar Cummins from the role. There have been bowlers who have been very successful captains, it's just that they are few and far between.
Head is the most experienced first-class captain but he's struggled to establish himself as a Test player. Australia doesn't have a history of choosing captains who don't merit a place as a player and that tradition must be maintained. Labuschagne is certainly good enough to hold his place but he has had little leadership experience. Also he would need to temper his quirky character if he were given the top job. Carey's obvious problem is that it's hard to imagine the selectors picking him as Paine's replacement as keeper and immediately installing him as captain.
Those considerations could leave Smith as captain by default. This is not a good reason to put any player in charge - especially one whose credentials already involve a murky captaincy past.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is a columnist