The ill-fated scapegoats of Smith-Warner reintroduction

For 12 months now, Australia has been divided at the seams by Steve Smith and David Warner. The longer they’ve been away from the scene, the more they’ve been in the news. The more convinced the Australians sounded over the duo’s bans, the more they’ve pined for them. The better the ODI team looked without them, the more everyone spoke about how it would be best to have them back.

Eventually, the present era of Australian cricket finds itself divided by the two most pre-eminent players Down Under into three parts – with, without and can’t do without Smith and Warner. There was the period when they overwhelmingly formed the core of the team. There was the period when they left an overwhelming hole in the core of the team. And we’re embarking upon a period when the core of the team looks overwhelmingly fortified now that they’re back.

When Trevor Hohns said, “Just so happened that Steven Smith and David Warner were coming back, someone had to miss out,” while announcing the 2019 World Cup squad, the chief selector wasn’t simply justifying his committee’s decision, he was also summing up the mood in the country over Australian cricket. For the World Cup selection wasn’t so much about who to pick as it was about whom to leave out in place of Smith and Warner.

It didn’t matter that Australia are presently on their best run in ODI cricket since their last World Cup win with eight straight victories or that they had only won two out of the last 13 games which Smith and Warner were a part of before their involvement in the Cape Town fiasco.

Unfortunately the scapegoats had to come from the successful squad who’ve reignited Australia’s hopes of retaining their crown in England over the last two months. To borrow a little from Hohn’s earlier quote, it just happened to be Peter Handscomb and Ashton Turner, who had played monumental roles in the victory at Mohali that signalled the turnaround for Australia’s ODI form. The chief selector at least was honest enough to admit that “Pete was desperately unlucky.”

Handscomb has averaged 43.54 and scored at a strike-rate of 98.15 in 2019 and is sixth on the list of run-getters for the year so far. According to Hohns, “Smith can play the same role that Peter excelled at in the batting line-up”. But the former Australian captain is still to regain his fluency of old in the IPL despite a couple of scores of note. It showed at Wankhede Stadium on Saturday when he walked in with Rajasthan Royals needing a run-a-ball to win, and struggled to find his trademark timing and placement. No Handscomb also means, Alex Carey is the sole wicket-keeper in the squad.

Though not similarly like for like in terms of roles, Warner comes back at the expense of Turner, who’d produced that incredible display of hitting in only his second ODI at Mohali. And while he presently sits on top of the run-scorers’ list in the IPL, the left-handed opener still needs to recapture his ‘bully with the bat’ avatar, which Australia will expect in England. Warner’s return though will ensure “someone has to miss out” or find a new role in the top-order that’s tasted immense success this year, be it Usman Khawaja who’s averaged 59.15 and gone past 50 in eight of his 13 innings or skipper Aaron Finch who smashed his way back into form in the UAE with two centuries.

But be it Handscomb and Turner, or Finch and Khawaja for that matter, every Australian cricketer and every other aspect of Australian cricket over the last 12 months has had a Smith-Warner shaped shadow hanging over it. It’s just that Khawaja and Shaun Marsh have more established reputations in the 50-over format along with current form as compared to the impressive forays from Handscomb and Turner in the short period prior to the World Cup.

“There’s always been that sort of in the background, where we’re trying to move forward but we know that these guys are going to be back at some stage,” Test captain Tim Paine had said in an interview to Cricbuzz a few months back. He’d also said that their returns would finally give Australian cricket the closure it needs from the ball-tampering scandal and help the team “move forward”.

There were two modern-day Australian superstars set for automatic returns in the bowling department too. Neither had played an ODI since the loss to South Africa at Hobart on November 11, 2018 owing to either injury or workload management. But while Mitchell Starc, the star of the last World Cup in 2015, is back as expected, Josh Hazlewood, the find of the last World Cup who then enjoyed a reign as the No.1 ODI bowler, has been left out. It’s not just a reflection of Australia’s fast bowling stocks but also of the unprecedented English summer, which will see Australia stay back for the Ashes. Perhaps it’s a way of Hohns & Co saying they’ll need Hazlewood more for the red-ball leg of the tour than prior to it. The selection of Nathan Coulter-Nile ahead of Hazlewood and Kane Richardson is also a sign of how despite Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis, Australia still sought the reassurance of having another biffer in the lower-order.

In the coming months, starting from the World Cup, we’ll hear a lot about reintegration and repatriation when it comes to Smith and Warner. For now, the selectors have played their inevitable role in that process. They had the simplest task after all of simply penning their names in again even if it meant, “someone had to miss out”.

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