Australia news How Steven Smith got his new challenge as a Test opening batter

It took a while for Australia’s selectors to realise Steven Smith was serious about opening the batting.

Australia’s best Test batter since Bradman opening? Risk him against the lottery that can be the new ball? The gut feel from those who heard it was to dismiss it out of hand. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Australia’s hierarchy had been softening the ground for a reshuffled batting order for some time but none of the limited public utterances from the selectors about who might open had featured Smith’s name, despite the fact they had known he had an interest in doing it for some time.

But when Smith declared his desire publicly on day three of the Sydney Test things escalated, although it didn’t immediately seal the deal. Captain Pat Cummins and coach Andrew McDonald both spoke to the media 24 hours later and both still cautioned against the idea.

Things instead shifted significantly between Saturday and George Bailey’s press conference on Wednesday where he announced that Smith would be Australia’s newest Test opener.

It is quite an incredible turn of events. Thirty-four-year-olds with 9514 Test runs at an average of 58.01 and 32 Test hundreds, all of which have been scored between Nos. 3-6, don’t suddenly turn around and enthusiastically volunteer to do the toughest batting job in Test cricket. If anything, they slide further away from the new ball, as Ricky Ponting and Allan Border did late in their careers.

What has become evident is how extreme Smith’s desire is for a fresh challenge. The selectors needed to know that he was in for the long haul. They needed to know that if he was knocked over cheaply by the new ball a couple of times in the West Indies series, or if he lost his wicket having to bat for 10 minutes late in a day, that Smith would not backflip on his stated desire and request a move back to No. 4.

The answer they got, it appears, was unequivocal. He’s all in. Bailey called it selfless. And in many ways, it is.

But there is an understated self-interest in it. An element of self-preservation perhaps. It is becoming clear that Smith may not have been long for Test cricket without a circuit-breaker. Marnus Labuschagne stated publicly that Smith was excited and re-energised by the thought of a new challenge. That sentiment has been echoed privately.

Smith had stated at the start of the Australia Test summer that he is taking things day-by-day. There have been questions about his Test future for over twelve months and he has never once squashed them with an emphatic declaration of his future commitment in the same manner that Nathan Lyon has declared his stated aim to reach the 2027 Ashes.

He is, of course, under no obligation to do so. But there is a strong suspicion that Smith won’t indulge in a David Warner-esque long goodbye. That he might wake up one day and decide the once insatiable thirst for churning out Test runs isn’t there and act on that thought without much hesitation.

Which is what makes his request to move to the top of the order even more intriguing. It appears that batting No. 4 for Australia has become Groundhog Day for Smith. He’s been there and done it over and over and over again. There isn’t a scenario he hasn’t seen. There isn’t a challenge he hasn’t conquered.

The year just gone is a prime example. How do you get yourself motivated for a tour of India when you scored three centuries on the previous trip? How do you fire up for an away Ashes series when you averaged 110 on the last one?

What is noticeable is that opposition teams aren’t necessarily finding it easier to knock Smith over. But they are finding ways to slow his scoring to a crawl and force him into uncharacteristic error more easily. He struck at just 46.89 in 2023 compared to 53.51 across his career. That dropped to 40 during the recent series against Pakistan.

He is losing interest in the patience battle that middle overs Test batting is offering him. He’s seen it all. Neil Wagner’s short ball barrage. England’s stacked legside theory. Pakistan packed the offside in Sydney and bowled wide. He’s seen it before and solved it before. Continually being asked to do so again is wearing thin on him. Like an actor who is famous for a specific role, he is both wary and weary of being typecast.

The new ball offers a new dawn. Three slips and a gully. No covers or funky leg side rings. Good bowlers attacking the channel and his stumps, with acres of space infront of him and behind him to score freely when they stray. A scoreboard reading 0 for 0 with no time to sit and watch those above him accumulate with ease before the ball softens and the bowlers stop attacking and start defending.

That is a problem that Smith is keen to solve. It’s a problem that will clearly keep him motivated for awhile. It seems it will have him jumping out of bed with a new zest for batting, rather than opening the curtains to see Groundhog Day again.

It has afforded Australia the luxury of bringing Cameron Green in to bat at his preferred position of No. 4 behind a top three of Smith, Usman Khawaja and Labuschagne and it gives Cummins six bowlers to work with. It’s a tantalizing line-up on paper.

Oddly though, despite winning at nearly every turn with very few selection blemishes to speak of the knives are already sharp if it doesn’t work. Noses have been put out of joint by the absence of an experienced first-class opener despite even Matt Renshaw conceding the selectors had clearly picked Australia’s best six batters.

There is also an undercurrent of resentment already developing towards Green despite a better Shield record than the supposedly snubbed Cameron Bancroft and a Test hundred in India nine Test innings ago.

The moment Australia are two-down cheaply with Smith already in the sheds instead of walking out to bat to lead the rescue mission, the why’s and what for’s will be deafening.

It is hard to believe it won’t work given the calibre of player Smith is. But it is still going to look strange when he walks out to bat in Adelaide. Steven Smith, a Test opener.

Alex Malcolm is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

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