Steven Smith and David Warner have not just been the backbone of the Australian batting in the last five years. They have actually been the entire body of Australian batting. What a series this might have been in Cricket Australia had not stuck to the obstinate high-handed ban on these two stalwarts….
Rewind a couple of years.
A dramatic fifth afternoon of the Boxing Day Test 2016. Australia had started the day just 22 ahead in the first innings. It had been a tall-scoring, rain-interrupted match, and seemed destined for a draw.
And then Mitchell Starc let loose a barrage of power hitting, slamming seven sixes in a quickfire 84. In just 29 overs, Australia had extended their lead to 181.
The climax was predictable, rather counter-intuitively, given the unpredictability of the Pakistan side. Josh Hazlewood made the initial dent, Nathan Lyon scythed through the middle-order and finally Starc, now with the ball, skittled out the tail. With still, more than 14 overs to spare, Australia won the Test by an innings and 18 runs.
Coincidentally, the Pakistan first innings total had been exactly the same as the Indians put up. India had declared their innings at 443 for 7 with just moments to spare on the second afternoon. Pakistan had scored a lot faster, but bad weather had ensured that their declaration at 443 for 9 came only after lunch on the third day.
That, as mentioned, is just a coincidence. Not much can be read into it. The wicket was not the same, the teams even less so.
The Australians had played Jackson Bird as the third paceman against Pakistan. In this Test, we saw the extraordinary Pat Cummins scripting miracles with both bat and ball.
Yet, Australia lost this Test by a huge margin while they had won that one by an innings. One look at the scorecard tells us the reason.
Replying to that 443, the Australians had responded with a scintillating counterattack. While their openers were both back in the hutch with the score reading 36 in this outing, by the time they had lost their second opener two years earlier, they had already romped past the follow on mark.
Having blasted a 143-ball 144, David Warner had tried to pull one from Wahab Riaz and had gloved a catch down the leg side.
And it had brought Steven Smith to the crease. When Starc had completed his assault on the Pakistani bowlers on the final morning, and the innings had been closed at 624 for 8, Smith was still there, undefeated on 165.
Yes, that was the difference. Australia had got all those runs. And throughout, at one end, there had been the presence of either Warner or Smith.
That, and the probable fact that perhaps, due to some specific reason, Mitchell Starc does not swing or reverse swing his deliveries quite that much nowadays.
The contrast between the two Test matches, after that particular similarity of first innings scores, tells us a lot about the two Australian sides, and specifically about the value of Smith and Warner.
One the best batsman of the world, a mantle that the Indian skipper Virat Kohli sports now in Smith’s glaring absence. The other, by some distance, the best opening batsman of modern day cricket.
The two of them played together for the first time in March 2013.
Since then they have represented Australia together in 57 Tests. They have won 30 of them, lost just 19.
In these 57 Tests, Smith has scored 5867 runs at 66.67, numbers that make the eye pop. Warner has not had a bad time either, with 5181 runs at 49.81.
The 8 Test matches played without them have seen Australia win 1 and lose 6.
Let me give you another statistic.
Since March 2013, Smith has played in all the Tests that Warner has appeared in. However, in this same period there have been two Tests in which Warner has not played but Smith has. At Nottingham and Lord’s against England in 2013. Australia lost both these Tests.
Together they have scored 11,048 runs at 57.54 in the 57 Tests they have both appeared in. In those same Tests, the rest of the Australian batting, all the other men put together, have managed 20,174 runs at 30.02.
Smith has 23 hundreds in these Tests, Warner 18. The next on the list is Usman Khwaja with 6.
Smith and Warner together is a combination that is formidable. They do not form the backbone of the Australian batting, they are the Australian batting … the head and the middle of it, combining to hold the structure together.
One cannot just pluck all those runs, centuries and experience from the side and carry on pretending it is business as usual. Shoes that huge are bound to trip anyone who steps into them.
And thereby it is hardly surprising that we are witnessing a struggling Australian side.
They are up against a fantastic Indian unit, of extraordinary bowling in both pace and spin departments, with at least one great and one very good batsman in their midst. It is actually quite an achievement not to be 0-3 down in the series.
We have often discussed whether the bans served on the cricketers, over and above the punishment meted by ICC, are justified or not. Especially when it is implemented by Cricket Australia, with many wrinkling their noses at the whiff of a blatant double-dealing volte-face.
But one is left wondering about the loss to cricketing excitement.
What a continuous cracker of high voltage contests we would have had if the Australian side had included these two stalwarts. The high-handed obstinacy of sticking to the bans have scooped a huge amount of spice and substance from the fare.