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News Analysis

Steven Smith's vice-captaincy may not be universally popular, but it makes sense

Enough time has passed since the ball-tampering for him to be an injury away from leading the team

Alex Malcolm
Alex Malcolm
Despite being only "a heartbeat away" from the United States Presidency, John Nance Garner, Vice-President under Franklin D. Roosevelt, once described his job as "not worth a bucket of warm piss".
There will be some in Australia who feel the same way about Steven Smith's leadership with the anger of 'Sandpaper-gate' and what he supposedly did to the once sacred office of Australia Test captain still fresh in their minds.
But as of today, Smith has become one of the most powerful vice-captains in Australian Test history and is only a hamstring away from the top job once more.
Pat Cummins' appointment as Australia's 47th Test captain, while widely heralded, comes with the knowledge that fast bowlers are fragile. And while Cummins has played in Australia's last 20 consecutive Test matches and 33 of the last 35, he did miss 64 after his debut as an 18-year-old due to an endless string of injuries.
Australia have rifled through Test vice-captains in the last three years since Smith was last captain, with Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Marsh, Travis Head and Cummins himself all taking turns in a game of musical chairs with Cricket Australia feeling safe in the knowledge that nobody would have to step in at short notice. But the time has come for Cummins and they have appointed Smith as his deputy knowing full well he is likely to be called upon to lead again.
There will be a great many who feel uncomfortable about this fact, especially given he has ascended to the role after his successor, Tim Paine, has resigned in different yet equally ignominious circumstances.
But the fact that Cummins has handpicked Smith as his deputy, adamant that he needs Smith's experience and guidance, is a sure sign of how far Smith has come. He is not the 26-year-old batting virtuoso who knew nothing but cricket when he was first appointed permanently in 2015, nor is he the 28-year-old burnt-out leader of 2018 who had become isolated from his teammates, and subconsciously or otherwise a little threatened by vice-captain David Warner's performance as T20I skipper.
Smith is now 32 and has learned some of the harshest lessons any cricketer could ever be made to learn about leadership and life in general.
It would take the coldest of hearts and narrowest of minds to think that he hasn't learned from those experiences and isn't better for them. Team-mates speak of him in a different light now. Heading back into the rank and file of the Australian team has been good for his soul. He has become a more willing participant in the fun and frivolity in the rooms. The experiences of Cape Town, and to a far lesser degree but significant in its own way, not being the best player in the T20 World Cup winning side, has taught him humility and given him a different perspective on what the team needs from him.
Smith noted as much when he spoke alongside Cummins after his appointment.
This will be a tightrope for Smith to walk, to do the job his captain asks of him without making the team feel like there are two skippers out there at once pulling the ship in different directions
"I'm truly honoured," Smith said. "I think there'll be some negativity from some people around it. I understand that and I get that. But for me, I know that I've grown a great deal over the last three or four years. I'm a more rounded individual. And in turn, I think it's turned me into a better leader and I'm excited to be in this position next to Patrick."
Smith is the most experienced Australian vice-captain in terms of leadership credentials since Adam Gilchrist was Ricky Ponting's deputy. The power dynamics between captain and vice-captain have been sources of tension within the Australian rooms ever since. Michael Clarke's relationship with Ponting, and then his own relationship with Shane Watson, as well as Smith and Warner's dynamic all prime examples.
Australia's philosophy on the vice-captaincy has been to use it to develop young leaders. But having aspiring leaders in the role can often be problematic.
Vice-captaincy isn't a warm bucket of you know what, but it is a very unusual role in a cricket team. While they are officially a leader, the job requires subtlety and subservience. Vice-captain's need to lead without undermining the captain. They need to be a conduit between the players and the captain while appearing to side with both. It requires emotional intelligence as much as tactical nous, and ego must be checked at the door.
It is a role that Smith can do better than anyone currently in the team. Having led Australia 93 times in all formats and 34 times in Test matches he knows better than anyone what a captain needs from his deputy and what a team needs from theirs.
But Smith has a greater challenge in that Cummins has asked him to be "an elevated vice-captain". Cummins knows his role as the team's talismanic fast bowler will require all his energy at times and has already declared that Smith will be called upon like no Australian vice-captain has been before, to make tactical decisions and bowling changes while the captain is on the field.
This will be a tightrope for Smith to walk, to do the job his captain asks of him without making the team feel like there are two skippers out there at once pulling the ship in different directions.
"I'm completely guided by Patrick and whatever he needs out on the field," Smith said. "That's my job. If there's times where Patrick hands to me and wants me to take over and do some different things out in the field, I'm there for that. My job is just to support Patrick as much as I can and ensure that you know, we're getting the best out of the team."
It will be a high-wire act, and there will be a great many waiting for the fall.
But as another US President Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, "It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena."
Steve Smith is now back in the leadership arena.

Alex Malcolm is an Associate Editor at ESPNcricinfo