CricViz analyst Freddie Wilde explains the consequences of Australia selecting Steve Smith in their T20 team.
The selection of Steve Smith in Australia’s T20 side is hugely significant, not only because it sees the addition to the squad of a player whose T20 credentials remain in considerable doubt, but because selecting him has knock-on effects on Australia’s entire team and strategy. That is not to say it is the wrong decision, that much remains unclear, but it is a decision with considerable consequences that represents a fork in the road for their strategy and it is essential that Australia understand that and adapt accordingly.
Based on his T20 career numbers alone it is hard to make a case for Smith in this Australian side. His presence is keeping D’Arcy Short and Chris Lynn—two of the most destructive batters in Australian conditions—out of the team. Both players are far more proven in the T20 format than Smith – whose strike rotation approach appears incongruous with a game increasingly governed by power and boundary-hitting.
However, Australia are betting on Smith’s innate batting genius that has seen him dominate in Test cricket to extend to the T20 format given that now, perhaps for the first time in his career, he is taking the format seriously. Australia would argue that we have not yet seen the best of Smith in T20 and they will be hoping that in a batting order littered with explosive players Smith can be a firewall to insure against top order collapses and play the role of anchor – adept at picking gaps, running hard and remaining proactive, something that should be effective in Australia where the boundaries are large and the outfields cavernous. The management will also have an eye on the 2021 World Cup as well – due to be played in India – where Smith’s skills against spin and on slower pitches will be useful.
A small sidenote. While the Australian management might look at Smith’s method and see a player who minimises risk by prioritising strike-rotation over boundary scoring, they could well be getting their logic back to front. Often in T20 not taking the aggressive option is as risky as taking it. While intuitively, the selection of a batsman such as Short or Lynn, two attacking players, might appear to be risky – in many respects the selection of Smith – comparatively unproven in the format and adopting a method that consumes as many balls at a slower rate – is arguably even more so – and that’s without even considering the consequences for his red ball batting.
Anyhow, Langer and Australia appear to have made their decision and barring a catastrophic run of form or a significant change in mindset we can expect to see Smith in the side come the World Cup next year. What is relevant therefore is not whether Smith is or is not selected but rather how his presence affects the rest of Australia’s team and strategy.
Simply speaking, Smith’s selection ahead of more powerful players such as Short, Lynn and many other contemporary batsmen means Australia‘s highest score will be lower—because they have compromised their power—but that their lowest score with be higher—because they’ve bolstered their stability. The natural interpretation of this is that Australia have said they are not going to be a batting-heavy team packed from top to bottom with aggressive power-hitters, but instead that their batting will be carefully structured and well-balanced with the likes of David Warner, Aaron Finch and Glenn Maxwell playing around Smith who will act as the fulcrum of the team.
The consequence of opting for the stability of Smith is that to match the bottom half of their team with their top half Australia need to focus on building a very strong bowling attack because they are now less able to win teams with their bat alone.
Bowling in limited overs cricket is a weak-link discipline, meaning that a bowling attack is often only as strong as its weakest member. This therefore places huge importance on the quality of the fifth bowler in an attack and as illustrated in the table below, Smith’s selection gives Australia less flexibility with this role.
If they had opted against Smith and gone with a Short or a Lynn they would have had more scope to choose between either a batting or bowling all rounder at number seven because they would know that even with, say, Dan Christian and Glenn Maxwell bowling four overs between them, they could make up any ground those two lost with the bat thanks to the additional batting power in the team; with Smith in the side haven’t got the luxury of that choice.
The Smith selection, what it represents and its consequences are very much in keeping with Langer’s philosophy as a T20 coach that he implemented so successfully at Perth Scorchers of establishing a stable batting order to complement a strong bowling attack. This strategy is generally accepted to be a better template for consistent results because bowling is a more reliable discipline than batting thanks to the fact that a team can guarantee their bowlers will deliver 24 balls, while the same cannot be said of batsmen.
The former Indian captain Rahul Dravid neatly encapsulated the significance of the number seven position in a recent interview. “There are enough statistics and data to prove that your number seven, on average, is playing something like eight to ten deliveries per match,’ he explained in the book Cricket 2.0. ‘But a bowler at number seven can actually influence the game a lot more because he can bowl 24 balls.’
So far it seems Australia have understood the position that Smith’s selection has put them in with Ashton Agar—a bowling all rounder—playing in all three matches against Sri Lanka. Other possible players for the role are the off spinner Chris Green and pace bowler Nathan Coulter-Nile, while the upcoming Big Bash League will give an opportunity to additional players to make their case.
The number seven spot is often the most pivotal position in a T20 team but in Australia’s team it has suddenly assumed even greater significance. As long as Australia continue to prioritise the bowling skills of the incumbent they will be giving themselves the best chance of success.
Freddie Wilde is a CricViz analyst. @fwildecricket