Over the years, people have observed that the captaincy of the Australian Test team is the second most important job in Australia, behind being Prime Minister. But is this still the case?
On Thursday, 5th November, another chapter in Australian cricket history was written. Australia had a new Test captain. Steve Smith became the 45th player to be honoured with the leadership role on a full time basis.
It was strange glancing at the Australian team for the Gabba Test, as the camera panned across the players whilst they sang the National anthem. The team was comprised of a new generation, ready to etch themselves into Australian Test cricket history.
Since Australia's last Test match in England, Brad Haddin, Shane Watson, Chris Rogers and captain Michael Clarke all retired from Test cricket. Known as "Dad's army" during the Ashes, the average age of the Test team was 31 at the time.
The remarkably different looking squad that took to the field at the Gabba had an average age of 28, and at the helm was baby-faced Steve Smith at the tender age of 26.
Many of us are used to the media commenting about whoever is captaining the Test side as “having the second most important role behind the Australian Prime Minister”. However, Smith's appointment hasn’t attracted the same level of analogy this summer.
Is that a reflection on his age, the prominence of cricket in Australian society or the status of Australia’s opponents in the current summer of cricket?
Looking back at the last five Australian Test captains, they were all close to 30 years of age when they were given the leadership role. Steve Waugh, the oldest of the last five captains, took over the captaincy at the age of 34 years. Allan Border was appointed at the tender age of 29 years, after Kim Hughes suddenly relinquished the role following a horrid run of performances.
Waugh, Border and the other previous captains, Ricky Ponting, Mark Taylor and Clarke had runs on the board, so to speak, before they took over the leadership role. All had been through their own performance rollercoaster in the Australian team before they were appointed.
Whilst Smith himself has been in and out of the team in his short career, and has returned to make a truckload of runs, he is still very junior to the Test scene.
The position of captaincy at Test level (or any level for that matter) doesn't provide an entitlement to the public’s respect as soon as you are appointed. It is something that a captain grows into and gains through actions.
Take, for instance, Border: he was a reluctant captain in 1984, taking over a side that hadn't performed well for a number of years. However, it was his determination as a batsman to put the runs on the board in difficult conditions that helped him lead by example. Border's leadership was credited as the primary reason for Australia's fortune turning favorably, especially when they won the World Cup in 1987. Border, known as 'captain grumpy', demanded the best of the players and they were soon on their winning way.
Smith, only two matches (full-time role) into his Test captaincy career appears to be following Border’s suit, not only by scoring runs, enough that he is currently ranked the number two Test batsman in the world, but also stamping his authority over his team.
We saw that after the first Test, when Smith publically reprimanded Mitchell Starc in the press conference. Smith expressed how he felt about Starc throwing a wayward ball at the batsman after being hit for three consecutive fours:
"I thought it was pretty disappointing. He's done it a few times and I'm going to have a word to him when we get back down in the sheds," Smith said.
Commenting on how Smith is handling the leadership role, coach Darren Lehmann stated, "really happy with him putting his mark on the captaincy." Lehmann also indicated that not only is Smith prepared to be direct with his players, but that he does a lot of work behind the scenes with the group.
The other reason that we may not have heard about comparisons with the Prime Ministership is that the game of cricket isn't as prominent as it once was in Australian society. Cricket has traditionally been seen as a colonial game, played widely by countries that were imperalised by the English, meaning that largely these communities in Australia have driven it.
Australia's immigration has diversified with increased numbers from China and other non-colonial countries meaning that cricket isn’t necessarily the dominant first sport choice in such communities.
Cricket Australia had done, and continues to do, a lot of work on making cricket a sport for all Australians.
Additionally, with a number of different formats of cricket, Tests, One-Day Internationals and Twenty/20, there have been different players playing in each of the sides. It may be that the public and the media are less familiar with the players, leading to a lowered level of emotional connection.
Of course, the other factor could simply be that a summer of Test matches against New Zealand and the West Indies doesn’t generate the same level of interest and attention as the matches against England, India or South Africa.
In any event, I certainly feel that as time goes on, Smith has the potential to be remembered as one of Australia's greatest captains of all time, because of the personal milestones he could achieve with the bat, as well as being such a young captain with the potential to create a dynasty that breaks all records. Smith has already shown he is not afraid to be his own man so soon into his Test captaincy career.
Time will tell if this is the case, but Smith is certainly going about his business the right way. And who knows what comparisons his “job” will generate in years to come.