Will Steve Smith follow Michael Clarke as Test captain?
Date: July 25, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell
In the last two decades Australian Test cricket has been blessed with strong on-field leadership.
Each time a longstanding captain has departed the scene another long term, readymade replacement has taken up the running.
The next passing of the baton will likely be different.
When Allan Border’s 93-match tenure at the helm ended in March 1994 he was replaced by Mark Taylor who took over the stewardship having played 54 Tests.
The next three full-time skippers have also been battle-hardened Test veterans.
Steve Waugh took over from Taylor in his 112th Test, with Ricky Ponting appointed captain in his 76th match.
The incumbent, Michael Clarke, came to the captaincy after playing 69 Tests.
The clock is certainly ticking on Clarke’s leadership.
He will turn 34 in April next year, hopefully holding aloft the 50-over World Cup trophy with Australia and New Zealand co-hosting the tournament a few weeks earlier.
A veteran of 105 Tests, Clarke has in signalled in the past that his career will not linger as long as some of his former teammates.
In May 2012, a little over a year into the captaincy, he said, “I hope I can have my impact in a short space of time and then be finished”.
To date he has led his country 37 times and in the process returned them to number one in the world – albeit that ranking may change in the coming days as a result of the current Sri Lanka-South Africa series.
Following the World Cup there is another Ashes series in England.
That may well see Clarke out or perhaps he will go on for another Australian summer.
One factor that will also no doubt take centre stage in determining his exit from the international arena is the degenerative disc problem in his back.
He was diagnosed with the complaint when 17 and has had to manage it diligently ever since.
It has flared up several times in the past two years forcing him to miss international matches and he has surely considered what further stress caused by the rigours of international cricket will have on the quality of his life post-retirement.
If Clarke was to abdicate Australian cricket’s throne at the end of the 2015-16 Australian summer he has the chance to lead his country in another 22 Tests.
So who then would replace him at that time?
There is no doubting that a few years ago Tim Paine was being groomed as a potential captain.
He played all three forms of the game at international level before hand injuries cruelled his progress.
In the four Tests he played – the last at Bangalore in October 2010 – he was sound with the gloves and efficient with the bat, averaging 36 with a top-score of 92.
He also played 26 ODIs, most at the top of the batting order.
In early-2011 he was elevated to the vice-captaincy of the T20 side but by April he had played his last match for Australia, an ODI in Bangladesh.
He is still only 29, and may well force his way back into the team when Brad Haddin hangs up the gloves which most likely will be after the World Cup.
If he does, he will have limited opportunities to confirm a permanent place in the side prior to Clarke’s departure.
When George Bailey debuted against England at Test level last summer it may well have been as much to do with an eye to the future with respect to the leadership as it was to the stuttering middle order at the time.
Bailey acquired his baggy green having savoured considerable success at ODI and T20 level with both bat and as a leader.
He raced to 1000 runs at ODI level in the space of just 32 innings, a mark bettered only by Hashim Amla.
In 39 ODIs he has averaged 53 with a rapid-fire strike rate of 93.
When called upon to skipper the side in the absences of Clarke and Shane Watson at various times he has shown ingenuity and a cool head.
But, alas his maiden Test series against England was far from stellar and after playing each of the five matches that series for an average of 26 he was dropped.
At 31 his time at Test level has more than likely come and gone.
David Warner has been spoken about as a potential leader however his off-field antics have been well documented.
He does have leadership experience having captained the Sydney Thunder in the BBL.
In recent times he has become a far more consistent and reliable opener, having elevated his career average to 46.5.
He has scored eight centuries in his 30 Tests but the off-field demeanours have most likely cruelled any prospect of leading his country.
At 30 years of age, he is no longer a young man and given some of his indiscretions have occurred in the last 12 months his copybook may has likely been blotted too often.
That leaves Steve Smith of those who have been in the side in recent years.
It has taken the pugnacious right-hander nearly four years to play his 20 Tests.
He debuted as a Test player at 21 at Lord’s in mid-2010.
Six months later, having played five matches, he was dropped.
His exile lasted nearly two-and-a-half years but since returning to the fold in India in early last year his performances with the bat have steadily improved.
He made two centuries in last summer’s Ashes series, both coming when the side was in a precarious position.
His last series against the Proteas in South Africa earlier in the year produced a three-Test average of 67 against a quality attack.
Like Warner, Smith has led his BBL side, the Sydney Sixers and has also skippered New South Wales at one-day and Shield level.
He is still only 25 and has yet to put a foot wrong off the field with his image untarnished by any unsavoury episodes.
Of the players currently in the Test team, or those who have been in the side of late and since been omitted, Smith seems to be the primary candidate to assume Clarke’s mantle.
It would be unlikely that a player who debuts in the time between now and when Clarke pulls stumps would be considered ready to assume the captaincy.
Should Smith get the job he will have likely played around 40 Tests before doing so.
It will be a considerable test of character but to date – on and off the field – he has shown he is up to it.
First published on The Roar on 24 July 2014
* If you would like a comment on this article please do so on The Roar