Australia should cut loose and make Steve Smith captain again

Russell Cunningham
Photograph: Harry Trump/IDI via Getty Images

When, or perhaps if, summer returns to England, I fancy wearing one particular cap. Of deep green with a gold Southern Cross on the bill, the cap would also sport four gold letters. MSCA: Make Smith Captain Again.

Bad idea, you say? No, Brexit is a bad idea. This government is a bad idea. A particularly bad idea is the Hundred, harrumph. But reinstating Steve Smith as Australia’s captain makes compelling sense. It’s about time cricket grew up.

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A year ago, at a press conference during the third Test against South Africa, Smith admitted his leadership was poor in the ball-tampering fiasco but was adamant he should keep the captaincy. “I still think I’m the right person for the job,” he said. “I take responsibility as the captain, I need to take control of the ship, but this is certainly something I’m not proud of and something that I can hopefully learn from and come back strong from. I am embarrassed to be sitting here talking about this.”

Cape Town embarrassment became Sydney shame five days later when Smith imploded before the Australian media. There was also a teary Cameron Bancroft, a teary David Warner, a teary Darren Lehmann, three lengthy bans and a resignation.

At which point all this nonsense should have stopped. But no. There were countless thousands of words in a lamentable bonfire of media piety, best captured by Andy Bull: “There have been bigger scandals but you would not know it from the fallout. No one died, no one doped, no one fixed, hell, no one even managed to cheat ... If the truth is a casualty of war, a sense of proportion is a casualty of sport.”

It’s even tempting to wonder when Terrence Malick will film the sorry mess: Guy Pearce whispering incoherently over pitiful scenes of weepy players and tut-tutting hacks.

Now, a year later, comes redemption. Apparently. Smith is back in the Australian fold along with Warner, his former deputy. And spectators have greeted them with boos and shouts of “Cheat!” – well done everyone. Smith has dismissed the jeers as “water off a duck’s back” but that’s not the point. It shouldn’t happen. It mocks the spirit of cricket. And one international captain is inclined to agree.

There was a moment at the Oval in the World Cup match between India and Australia when Virat Kohli urged supporters of his team to applaud rather than jeer Smith, then during a change between overs shook hands with his former Test counterpart. Kohli said later it was “not acceptable” for fans to boo Smith. “What’s happened has happened,” the India captain said. “Everyone has known that. He’s come back. He’s worked hard. He’s playing well for his side now.”

Well said, sir. Smith is a cricketer, not a criminal; he broke the Laws, not the law. So yes, apologise and do the time. But then return without a tugged forelock to any crowd dabbling in mental disintegration – the very thing for which Australian cricket teams of yore have been slated.

Australia have lost their mongrel mojo. By burying their natural joie de niggle they’ve managed to lose their bluster and air of invincibility

Which brings us to the captaincy. I’ve nothing against Aaron Finch or Tim Paine – doubtless they’re sterling chaps and Finch is a superb batsman – but when there’s a fellow back in the team who has been described as the new Don Bradman, then have him lead the side with the clear message: follow me, lads. Humorists might offer directions to the nearest hardware store, but there’ll be rough justice everywhere. Accusations will be fired each time an Australian player so much as reaches into his pockets to warm his hands. So fire back, from the hip.

This new, softer Baggy Green isn’t convincing. To a mug’s eye the players look muddled. They dispatched Sri Lanka and Pakistan last week, but not without some ropey middle-order batting and the lethal sting of Mitchell Starc. That followed their curious run chase against India at the Oval: pedestrian, confused, doomed. India won by 36 runs: Warner faced 48 dot balls. Smith was bumped up to No 3. Usman Khawaja, so effective when filling in as an opener during Warner’s ban, struggled at No 4, scored 10 at No 3 against Sri Lanka and, in the Pakistan game, found himself at No 6. Call me a pundit (shudder), but why not restore Khawaja as opener, slot Warner in at three and Smith at four?

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Whatever they thought they were doing against India did not work, and hints at a philosophical flaw. Australia have lost their mongrel mojo. By burying their natural joie de niggle they’ve managed to lose their bluster and with it an air of invincibility. It’s time they found it again. Hand-wringers in the game might chunter and tie themselves in knots, but the ocker swagger works.

None of this is to say Australia won’t win the World Cup (they will) or should return to the alpha male doctrine of winning at all costs. But the Ashes are far from safe, though Paine may disagree. Smith is banned from any leadership role until next year, but oh let’s have some fun.

Imagine the boos of faux moral outrage at an Australian Test side led once more by a chap caught out for ball carpentry. Splendid. Do it. Defiance is a powerful force in a team and Australians are steeped in historical fury. Kick out the jams.