Smith’s opening role faces make-or-break India series

Australia

Australia’s thrilling chase in Christchurch rounded off a southern hemisphere summer where they won six Tests out of seven including both matches in New Zealand. They do not play Test cricket again for nine months when India tour Australia for a five-Test series that will start in late November. Australia’s side is incredibly settled, but their wins this summer have been far from convincing. There are some kinks to iron out heading towards their next Test against India.

Is Steven Smith working as an opener?

The raw numbers so far aren’t good. Steven Smith produced an exceptional 91 not out in Brisbane, but outside of that, his returns are 12, 11*, 6, 31, 0, 11 and 9 with those last four scores coming on the tour of New Zealand.

Nearly every batter in the side has come in for some kind of criticism over the last two months but Smith’s performance against the new ball has been forensically examined in New Zealand. Coach Andrew McDonald was quick to defend his new opener after the win in Christchurch.

“I think it’s unfair,” McDonald said. “I don’t think it’s deserved. I think he’ll be able to work through that. It’s a new challenge for him, a new position. If you bring in a new opener and you gave them four Test matches, and then said, okay, we’re going to shift that after four Test matches would you think that’s fair or unfair? I think it’s reasonably unfair.”

There are recent Australian openers who could argue they have been unfairly treated on that precedent, although none of them have been given such short thrift by this current selection panel.

Smith’s body of work is such that he can be extended a long line of credit. The unbeaten 91 was also only five innings ago and it was an innings of exceptional quality on a difficult surface where he was the highest scorer in the match by some margin.

The concern around Smith is that either side of that he has really struggled to work out where his off stump is and he has also been exposed on both edges. It is a disastrous place to be for an opening batter. His two lbws in Christchurch were particularly troubling. Opposing fast bowlers have been trying to hit his pads for a decade.

Before his move to open they had only managed to do in 17% of his dismissals and it cost them 9514 runs at 58.01. Since he has moved to open he has been trapped lbw three times in six dismissals for scores of 6, 11 and 9. But McDonald is convinced he will work it out.

“He’s up for the challenge,” he said. “I think anytime that Steve Smith fails he sees it as a greater challenge. So obviously walking away here with 51 runs under his belt in tough conditions, that’ll no doubt drive him for the next challenge. And that next challenge is India, and they await. I think it’ll be an internal motivator for him. He wants to open. It’s a position that he came to us around and we think he can make it work.”

The new-look batting unit as a whole is not functioning as well as Australia would like. They have passed 300 once in six completed innings, on the back of a 116-run 10th wicket stand in Wellington, and were 80 for 5 in Christchurch before chasing down 279 seven down thanks to heroics from Alex Carey, Mitchell Marsh and Pat Cummins. The three individual centuries scored was the lowest tally in a season of at least six Tests.

McDonald acknowledged there was going to be debate, but he believes they have the best seven batters in the country and the line-up won’t change unless someone does something exceptional in first-class cricket over the next nine months.

“It’s going to be a hard group to infiltrate. It will take something special I think,” McDonald said. “I think four Test matches is still a rather small sample size. We’re trying to make sure that we get the best top six batters, plus Alex Carey is an extension of that. How we stack them is always going to be a debate.”

Can the big three keep going unchanged?

Given Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Mitchell Starc have just played seven Tests in a row across the summer, as well 10 out of 11 ODIs at the World Cup together and the last two Ashes Tests together, the answer appears to be yes. But memories of India’s 2020-21 tour to Australia will ensure the selectors think long and hard about trying to play them for five straight against India.

The pitches this summer have helped them enormously. Not a single one of the seven Tests have reached a fifth day, whereas the pitches in Sydney and Brisbane in 2020-21 required a heavy workload and Australia paid the price.

The back-ups remain the usual suspects in Scott Boland and Michael Neser. There will be hopes that Lance Morris can return to full fitness as well as Jhye Richardson. But Richardson’s injury troubles remain a major concern. He’s played just three first-class matches since his last Test match in December 2021. Australia’s selectors are unlikely to need to look much further beyond those four.

One thing that has been a major win for Australia from the New Zealand tour is the batting form of their incumbent bowlers. There were some internal concerns that the tail was getting knocked over a little too easily and their contributions relative to their Pakistan and West Indies tail-end counterparts during the home series had been lean overall. But all four of Australia’s bowlers made major contributions with the bat across the two Tests in New Zealand that were critical to both victories.

Nathan Lyon versus India looms as a major battle

Nathan Lyon will be 37 by the time India arrives in Australia and he will have played a full County Championship season with Lancashire. He is coming off an excellent tour of New Zealand and remains a key cog in Australia’s attack. He bowled beautifully in India last year.

But his record against India at home has not been great. The likes of Virat Kohli and Cheteshwar Pujara have been able to blunt his influence on Australian pitches. He is likely to face a different looking India line-up but he averages 37.11 and strikes at 74.6 against them in 15 home Test matches. He only took nine wickets in the 2020-21 series although there were a stack of missed opportunities off his bowling.

What has been evident this summer is that he has thrived on any surface that offered extra bounce, which has been the case throughout his career. There wasn’t a lot of excessive bounce in 2020-21 as there was no Test in Perth and Brisbane was particularly placid. Australia look set to play two of the first three Tests on those surfaces and they will hope Lyon is in fine fettle after a full season in England.

Alex Malcolm is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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