FOR ALL his runs, Test cricket captain Steve Smith appears to be less popular with fans than you might expect, says Chief Writer RON REED:
THE WEEK THAT WAS: THE controversy over Victorian batsman Glenn Maxwell’s omission from the Australian one-day team has revealed a surprising side issue. Namely, Steve Smith – the national captain in all forms of the game – is piling up Test match runs like no-one since (or before) Bradman, and yet he seems to be acquiring an unfortunate image problem.
The perception rapidly gaining currency is that if you’re not personally on-side with Smith, your chances of getting a game for Australia in any format, or of staying in the team once you’re there, are diminished. To say the least, it is a moot point given he is not a selector. However, the incumbent captain, whoever he might be, does wield enormous influence regardless of whether he is officially on the panel. Smith is no different.
Smith’s critics have a good case when they point to the decision to fly spin bowler Steve O’Keefe from Sydney to play in the second Test in Bangladesh last year, ignoring the fact he was under suspension from his state, NSW, for misbehaving at an awards night, and overlooking Victorian Jon Holland, whose Sheffield Shield figures were significantly more compelling than O’Keefe’s. It is, of course, well known that Smith and O’Keefe have been tight mates for a long time.
With Maxwell, the suggestion is that Smith is no fan of the Victoria’s edgy, outspoken style, which got him into trouble a year ago when he had a crack at then Victorian captain (and Australian wicketkeeper) Matt Wade for batting ahead of him in the Sheffield Shield. And certainly, the tone of Smith’s slap-down this week, when he accused Maxwell of not training “smart” enough, had no warmth about it. But equally, he was able to point to Maxwell’s recent one-day average of only 22 as justification for leaving him out of the series against England that starts on Maxwell’s home ground, the MCG, next weekend. But is there more to it than that? Commentator Michael Slater has hinted publicly that there must be, and the sentiment is widespread. Other former players have suggested that Smith has ignored a long-standing dressing room rule that if you want to criticise other players you do it privately but not publicly. Again, it is difficult to ping Smith for choosing the more honest option.
You didn’t have to spend much time trawling through social media this week to discover that Smith is a lot more unpopular among fans than you would expect, given his stellar performances with the bat and that he has overseen a comprehensive Ashes victory. Many regard him as personally immature off the field and a poor strategist on it. He probably has one sympathiser in the commentary box – his predecessor, Michael Clarke, was also deeply disliked by much of the public and fell out with a number of team-mates. He regained much of that ground with an impressive display of leadership in the painful aftermath of team-mate Philip Hughes’s death, but the goodwill proved to be temporary. Mostly, captains of the Australian cricket team – holders of an office often said to be second in prestige only to the prime ministership – do not have these problems, although the immortal Sir Donald Bradman managed to get a few off-side. But equally, he was a national hero while he played and for long afterwards.
At 28, and in charge for only about three years so far, Smith is obviously not even half-way through his tenure and has unlimited scope for coming to grips with the finer points of the job. If he has a problem – and it’s a big, big if – then it’s a problem most cricketers would love to have: he’s got his idea of the best job in the world and he’s succeeding at it in spectacular style. It’s unlikely he’s going to lose too much sleep over the keyboard warriors queuing up to get on his case.
The one with the problem is Maxwell, whose career is clearly at the crossroads. As everyone agrees, his talent is endless – but his methods are flawed. And maybe his personality is too. Dean Jones, one of the more insightful commentators among the many old players who frequent the media these days, has hit the nail on the head this weekend, writing about Maxwell: “He doesn’t seem to have a mate on the national selection panel, nor a friend in the Australian team. Something must be wrong and all I know is that Maxwell needs to be very smart in his actions over the next few months to win back selectors’ favour. If he doesn’t, I fear he will never play for Australia again.”
Jones points out that Maxwell’s problems are not just within the Australian team. “He wasn’t retained this week by his Indian Premier League team, the Kings XI. And it was only 16 months ago that Maxwell wanted to leave Victoria,” Jones said. “Surely he must see the red flags popping up everywhere. The big question Maxwell must ask himself is how much of this is his fault.”
With the Big Bash still in its early stages and the second half of an already personally prolific Sheffield Shield season still to come, and perhaps the tour of South Africa not out of the question, Maxwell has plenty to play for in the remainder of a season that has been encouraging in some ways and, now, desperately disappointing in others. For those of us who derive great entertainment from watching him bat at his best, the wish will be that he can keep moving forward.
IT IS not often that the grand old lady of East Melbourne is in disgrace. But the MCG was red-faced this week when the International Cricket Council issued a formal rebuke over the state of the pitch for the fourth Ashes Test, describing it as “poor.” Nobody disagrees with the assessment, the lifeless track having frustrated both batsmen and bowlers and contributed heavily to a tedious draw – a rare result at the great stadium in recent times. Whatever the problem is with the drop-in square – the best guess seems to be that it is dying of old age – it’s a safe bet that a solution will be found quickly, in time for next year’s match against India. The ICC has, as of this week, introduced a new system of demerit points which make it possible for venues serving up sub-standard venues consistently to be barred from hosting Test matches. Huh? The “G” banned? That’ll be the day! The Boxing Day Test is the most patronised event on the cricket calendar, anywhere in the world, and generates millions of dollars in revenue, as well as being one of the pillars of Melbourne’s reputation for sports mega-events, along with the Open tennis, the Grand Prix, the Melbourne Cup and the Grand Final. The notion of it disappearing, even for a single year, is laughable.
Click here to see Jeff’s view on the MCG pitch
TIME flies when you’re having fun. So, it was no surprise to find Shane Warne in an upbeat mood this week when he tweeted that it had been 25 years since he made his Test debut against India in Sydney. But he’s getting confused in his old age. In fact, it was even longer – it was January 2, 1992, which is 26 years ago. But not to quibble. Not many people have packed quite as much into a quarter of a century: an almost peerless cricket career, the capacity to keep on earning millions in “retirement” simply by being himself, a positive parental image long after his divorce, an enviable jet-setting lifestyle and a vast audience – he long ago passed a million followers on Twitter – hanging on every word he says. In fact, Warne may now be the most influential voice in the game. He commentates for various outlets all around the world and in Australia has a column in the well-read News Corp papers and websites and is active on social media multiple times every day. He is very good at it, too. His cricket IQ is second to none and he is not afraid to make controversial calls. The young Warne was a bogan with so much to learn about life that he once invited a posse of senior cricket writers to an upmarket restaurant to inquire why he had such an underwhelming image in the media given he was such a successful performer on the national stage. Suffice to say he proved to be a good learner and certainly wouldn’t need any more clues these days.
NO-ONE has had a more disappointing week than Australian Open director Craig Tiley, who had Andy Murray and Serena Williams announce on successive days that they would be giving the tournament a miss, while Novak Djokovic said he would be in Melbourne to prepare but gave no guarantees he would be fit enough to play in the big one. There is also a question mark over Rafael Nadal, while Bernard Tomic has declined to subject himself to the indignity of having to qualify—so he’s out too. A number of women players are also doubtful.
Any one of these scratchings would normally leave a big hole but it will be like the Grand Canyon if they all fail to make it to the start line. Perhaps Tiley can live without Murray because, superb player that he is, he doesn’t have the charisma of Djokovic, Nadal and Williams, and is unlikely to have any noticeable effect on attendances. Williams is a far bigger loss. She is always the centrepiece of the women’s event, by far its most popular talking point – and her new status as a mother would have doubled that factor. But she has never done things by half-measures and is unwilling to start now, realising she is not quite back to full fitness. With nothing left to prove and a champion’s pride to consider, that is entirely fair enough. There is no suggestion Melbourne has seen the last of her
WINNER OF THE WEEK
Cycling fans have become used to watching pint-sized sprinter CALEB EWAN dominate the early part of the new season and he was at it again when the national road championships kicked off in Ballarat, winning the criterium for an unprecedented third year in a row. It’s a good start to a huge year for the Mitchelton-Scott prodigy, who will make his long-awaited debut at the Tour de France in July.
LOSER OF THE WEEK
To quote star player Glenn Maxwell, the MELBOURNE STARS Big bash team was “putrid” when it was thrashed by Brisbane Heat with nine wickets and 32 balls to spare at the MCG, crashing to 0-3 – their equal worst start ever.
Author: Ron Reed
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.