Pat Cummins Named Captain, But Steve Smith the Australian Leader in Waiting
Steve Smith has returned to a leadership role in the Australian team after being made Test vice-captain.
Australia always liked to boast to the rest of the cricketing world.
‘The way we choose our captain is simple. We pick the best XI and then the best from that is the captain'.
However, since the ball tampering scandal in 2018, Australia went against its own dictum and instead picked the nicest guy, Tim Paine, as their Test captain! Now Rishabh Pant, Ravichandran Ashwin, and Virat Kohli may have differing views on whether Paine was really the nice guy that Australia believed he was, but it did make sense for the Aussies to break away from the Steve Smith-era where the old nasty bunch came to the fore.
It seemed like Australia had gone down a new path. A new era was set to be unveiled where the team, under head coach Justin Langer, would try to be nice human beings.
This sort of talk did not last long.
The Aussie tongues once again started wagging with Paine, of all people, leading the charge. But with two successive Test series losses at home to India, knives started getting sharper. Former Aussie players, usually the bugbear of all incumbent Test captains, started getting louder. Paine was their target, especially the one man of many virtues, Shane Warne.
It seemed like it was only a matter of time that Tim Paine would be the target again, before the upcoming Ashes. The end though came sooner than expected with his explicit text message exchange with a former colleague from 2017 forcing the Tasmanian cricketer to announce his decision to step down from the captain's post and later, announce that he was stepping away from the game for an indefinite time period as well.
With Paine gone, both as a player and captain, from the upcoming Ashes, the mantle has gone to fast bowler Pat Cummins. But what is even more surprising is the return of Smith in a leadership role! Three years after he was banished in the hope of finding a new well-behaved Australian team, Smith is back as deputy to Cummins.
This is really life coming back a full circle for Smith. All the talk by head coach Langer of becoming nice guys will now be consigned to the bin. Smith’s leadership role in any capacity has always been problematic. He has been seen as a polarising figure. We in India remember how during the 2016-17 Border-Gavaskar Trophy Smith tried looking at the dressing room for help when he was pondering about going in for DRS. The famous 'brain-fade' moment.
Then what he did in South Africa just a year later in 2018 has not been forgotten. He was banished from international cricket for a year and from leadership roles for a couple of years. There was always the perception that Paine was warming the seat for Smith. There was no clear leader in waiting unlike previous eras.
Marnus Labuschagne could emerge as an option in the coming years but he has still not reached the level that you would expect a future Aussie Test captain to be at. Smith was clearly the best fit for the role since David Warner, following the Newlands incident, has been banished forever from all kinds of leadership positions.
Cummins a Long-Term Choice?
In the time that Paine took over as Test captain, a key figure to emerge int he team was 28-year-old Pat Cummins. Now this ever-smiling fast bowler has risen in stature as a key pacer of the side but also as a useful batter. But he is still very much the guy who has spent half of his ten-year international career battling injuries. He has spent more time away from the game than on the field. So, there is always the perception that he may not be a long-term option.
Aussie cricket always looks five-ten years ahead and makes decisions accordingly. That was how Steve Waugh got the ODI captaincy in 1997 and Ricky Ponting replaced Waugh in that role in 2002. They can be very ruthless with decisions like that.
Hence, it is a surprising call by the Aussie think-tank to name Cummins as Test captain. For one, it does appear that the the board is rattled by yet another of their Test captains, this time Paine, walking away from the role in tears. This has meant more bad PR, and from their standpoint, more resentment towards Australian cricket. Three-and-a-half years ago, Smith & Co’s acts created an impression about Aussies which has still not been forgotten.
Smith,the Eventual Pick
The key therefore was for Australia to not straightway hand the captaincy reigns to Smith. But instead, they have delayed the eventual reinstatement of Smith as the Test captain, because Cummins is now warming the seat for him.
As a fast bowler Cummins starts off with the handicap of being the team’s lead bowler and as the captain who has to think about his bowling as well as that of his group. Cummins has a tough task on hand. Then there is the issue with Cummins’ injuries which can flare up at any time. So, Australia are essentially looking at Smith returning as the Test captain in the immediate future. Who knows, by the time Australia return to India in late 2022 for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Smith could very well be in charge of the side again.
History Could Repeat
No one is really against Cummins, a fast bowler becoming the captain. We have had Imran Khan, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham, Shaun Pollock, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, and Waqar Younis becoming captains of their respective countries.
Essentially, the first few names were genuine all-rounders, whereas the others were genuine fast bowlers which made it that much more difficult for them. Very few spinners like Bishan Bedi, Intikhab Alam, Abdul Qadir, Anil Kumble, and Shane Warne have led their national sides.
A bowler is not considered a bad fit, but is generally considered to be a flight risk for the captaincy role because of the ever-increasing workload and because of injury concerns.
Hence Cummins’ rise is genuinely Smith’s elevation because he essentially now is the leader in waiting at all points of time. It will be interesting to see how the sage of all he surveys, Langer, reacts to this elevation. When Langer took over in 2018, he made all the noises about his team being good human beings, prioritising family etc. But with Smith returning, wonder where all the motivational talk goes!
Australian cricket was on a high post their maiden T20 World Cup win, but they were brought down with a thud by Paine’s escapades.
Now, with the old enemy, England in their backyard, Aussies may well want to put all this off-field nonsense to bed! But it is easier said than done because the boys from Fleet Street will not let the Aussies forget anything so easily.
So, let the fun and games begin!
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