Ben Jones analyses whether or not the red ball genius should be in the T20 side.
After a year in which ODIs and Tests have each had their moment in the spotlight, attentions around the world have begun to turn to T20. The World Cup for the shortest international format is now only a year away, and the hosts are beginning to make the necessary arrangements.
Australia’s squad for the T20 series’ against Sri Lanka and Pakistan did not contain many surprises, but there was one very notable selection. Steve Smith, Ashes hero and Test match genius, was recalled having not played a IT20 for Australia since the World T20 in 2016. His non-selection broadly a way of managing his workload, Smith has not been part of an Australian side which has generally been successful, winning 57% of their matches.
Smith has played plenty of T20 cricket in that time, of course, just not in Australian colours – two seasons at Rising Pune Supergiant, and a season each at Barbados Tridents, Comilla Victorians, and Rajasthan Royals. He has had some success in each of those three leagues, and remains a player in demand in shorter formats, as shown by Welsh Fire’s decision to draft him for The Hundred.
Yet for some, there remains some fundamental issues with Smith as a white ball batsman, particularly in T20 cricket. In T20, Smith is far less certain of his spot than in other forms of the game, far less influential when he does get a gig.
For many, the question remains – is Smith a good T20 batsman?
Well, he doesn’t score very quickly. Since the last time he played for Australia in this form of the game, Smith’s T20 batting style is very clear, minimising risk and sacrificing scoring rate. In T20 over the last four years he’s scored at 7.53rpo and been dismissed every 30 balls – slow, but very secure.
We can see this pattern emerge more clearly, if we compare Smith’s record to other players in similar situations. His ‘True’ Scoring Rate is +0.04rpo, meaning that compared to the average scoring rate for the period of the innings when Smith has made his runs, Smith scores 0.04rpo quicker than the average. His ‘True’ Dismissal Rate, +8.49rpo, is excellent. Amongst established Australian batsmen, only David Warner can boast a better record in this regard since the last World T20. Over a long period of time – that four year window – Smith is a typical anchoring player, aiming to score at a reasonable rate but with little risk.
Indeed, since the last World T20, Smith is one of a fairly small number of Aussies who can boast both a positive True Scoring Rate and a positive True Dismissal Rate. As we’ve established, Smith’s credentials in terms of fast scoring are sketchy, but he is at the very least above average, even if only in the most literal sense.
However, recently this has not been the case; in the last two years, Smith has not been in that elite group of Aussies. That ability to preserve his wicket has remained, but Smith’s ability to score at an acceptable rate has dropped significantly. His True Scoring Rate, previously almost exactly zero, has now dropped into the negative.
This is significant. Whereas previously Smith’s scoring rate had just been fine, it has now deteriorated into a real problem. An anchor who can score at the same pace as the average player but with little to no risk – i.e. a player still in the top right area of the graphic, the player Smith was before – is quite a valuable asset.
By contrast, an anchor who can eliminate risk but at the cost of scoring rate – i.e. a player in the top left area of the graphic – is something altogether more delicate, and harder to build a team around.
Such a player is, ultimately, going to make less of a contribution to their side. CricViz’s Batting Impact measure calculates how many runs more than the average player any given batsman contributes. It’s better than scoring rate or average because it takes into account the game situation, and gives a better indicator of which players are more “valuable”. In the last two years, Steve Smith’s Average Batting Impact in T20 has been +0.8. It’s positive which is, well, a positive, but as you can see below it does not rank him especially highly amongst his fellow Australians.
On top of this, any issues with Smith are exaggerated by the fact that he’s an extremely slow starter. Over the last two years of T20 cricket, Smith scores roughly 21 runs in the first 20 balls he faces. When you compare this scoring rate to that of other Australian batsmen over that period, he’s among the slowest around. The effect of this is clear. Slow starters, particularly in the middle order, pile pressure on the team; if he gets out after 20 balls, he has most likely made a negative contribution to the side.
There are caveats to this criticism. CricViz analysis suggests that the highest standard of T20 cricket is played in the Indian Premier League, while T20 internationals between Test-playing nations are in the tier below, alongside the Big Bash. So, we would expect Smith to find this upcoming series – and indeed next year’s tournament – slightly easier than he has found the IPL.
The cliche of Smith is “the problem solver”, the man who finds a way to succeed no matter what. When Smith had a whole year only playing T20 cricket, he didn’t manage to solve the issue of his scoring, his True Scoring Rate of -0.65 still just not good enough when the wealth of other options are considered.
Ultimately, there is a broader issue to consider. Australia have a precious resource in Smith. His performance in the Ashes was one of the greatest we have seen in an old and storied rivalry, and it was still not enough for Australia to win the series. There is talent and ability in Langer’s ranks, but none are even close to Smith right now. Australia need Smith the Test batsman. By contrast, in T20, Smith stands as one of many, many men capable of delivering strong, serviceable performances. With a little work and refocusing, he could move to the front of that pack, but that is a move not without considerable risk.
Australia are trying to turn Smith into a T20 player they already have, and in doing so, may lose the Test player only he can be. Right now, that is a gamble not worth taking.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.