The postponement of this month’s Test tour of South Africa has inadvertently focused a fresh light on the 2018 Longstaff report, and added to the intrigue over who will replace Tim Paine as Test captain.
While Cricket Australia’s decision to pull out of the three Tests in the African nation on health and safety grounds has left relations with Cricket South Africa “strained”, according to CSA’s head of cricket Graeme Smith, it has meant the likes of Steve Smith, Pat Cummins, Marnus Labuschagne and Paine can spend time with their state sides and even grade clubs, something wicketkeeper Paine has enjoyed to the point he even opened the bowling for his local side, University of Tasmania.
Tim Paine, left, and Steve Smith.Credit:AP
This can only be a good thing for the next generation of stars, and one exciting talent, NSW’s Oliver Davies, clearly benefited from spending time in the middle with Smith in Monday’s Marsh Cup at North Sydney Oval. On debut, the young dasher told Smith of his plans and how he would target the short boundary square of the wicket – and he did just that in thumping 57 off 41 balls, including three sixes. Smith later praised Davies for being “smart”.
Finding time among a heavy international schedule for Australia’s elite cricketers to return to the Sheffield Shield and Marsh Cup has been an issue for years, a challenge made even more difficult in a COVID-19 impacted season. More than a dozen players missed the opening rounds of the Shield because of the rescheduled Indian Premier League, and the IPL will again have an impact when the latest auction is held on Thursday.
The tournament is expected to start in the second week of April, and players will need to quarantine. The Shield final is due to be held from April 15 but from Wednesday’s resumption of the season, until late March, the best of the best should be available for their states. And that’s something Dr Simon Longstaff, in his wide-ranging and damning cultural review of Australian cricket in 2018, recommended more of.
The tough decision to scrap the South African tour has meant there a no excuses for players not to front up. What this has also allowed is for Cummins to take the captaincy of the Blues’ one-day side, with Peter Nevill retaining the role in four-day cricket.
Admittedly, it was only one match, and nothing like a mentally demanding four-or-five day clash, but that he claimed three wickets, made a one-day career-high 49 and enjoyed a victory over Victoria on Monday was a great start.
As the deputy to Paine and, in white-ball cricket, to Aaron Finch, Cummins was seen, by some initially, as simply an ideal vice-captain, who would not be in serious contention for the top job because of his bowling responsibilities. But that view has changed, and with Paine having been put under the microscope this summer, and turning 37 come the Ashes next summer, Australia must have a successor ready.
Another of Longstaff’s recommendations was that the “the role of vice-captain be ‘de-coupled’ from that of ‘heir apparent’ for the captaincy” – a point CA supported. “The captain should be able to rely on the loyal support of the vice-captain,” Longstaff said. This came after previous issues between captain and vice-captain, namely when Michael Clarke was deputy to Ricky Ponting although the dynamic between Smith and his then deputy David Warner was also interesting.
I think being a fast bowler it would be tough, but that’s not really for me to decide.
Cummins continues to give Paine his “loyal support” but where the policy has changed is that he is now in the running to be “heir apparent”, something Josh Hazlewood, one of Paine’s initial deputies, never was. The race is on. And this is where Smith’s recent comments are also intriguing.
Whether the CA board would really want to revisit the ball-tampering scandal and deal with the optics of what it would mean to return Smith to the most public of roles is debatable, but Smith says he would do the job if asked.
“When and if that time comes and if I’m the right person when that time comes, then yes, but we’ll wait and see, those guys are doing great jobs at the moment,” he said on SEN last week.
However, it was his comments about Cummins and whether world cricket’s No.1 bowler could handle the added responsibilities that raised eyebrows.
“I think being a fast bowler it would be tough, but that’s not really for me to decide. That’s probably a question for him so we’ll wait and see,” he said.
Pat Cummins made his debut as NSW captain on Monday.Credit:Getty Images
Then on Monday, after his match-winning century, he was asked on Fox Cricket how he felt Cummins had handled the day.
“It was good. It was a pretty easy day in regards of plans and stuff. It was just bashing the wicket and good, hard lengths and letting them sort of make the mistakes, squeezing them in the field. So, I don’t think it was a tough day yet,” he said.
Then with a laugh, he added: “We’ll see how he goes when he gets one.”
This has been construed by some in two ways. Yes, Smith was right – it was only a domestic one-day match. But it also reinforced the belief he has a burning ambition to regain a role he left in tears.
Labuschagne has also been floated as a possible successor to Paine. One thing, however, is clear – the jockeying for position is heating up.
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