By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – A year on from taking the reins from an injured Michael Clarke, Australia captain Steve Smith has passed most of the tests presented in leading a team in the throes of transition.
While Smith’s formal coronation followed Australia’s stinging Ashes defeat in England, his first taste of the captaincy came during last year’s home series against India, a baptism of fire for the nation’s youngest skipper in 35 years.
With Australia still rocked by the death of batsman Phillip Hughes, the then-25-year-old Smith smashed 133 in the second test at the Gabba to drive the hosts to a four-wicket victory.
He struck centuries in both the final tests to lead the team to a dominant 2-0 series win over Virat Kohli’s side.
Since taking over from Clarke permanently in August, Smith has known little but success on the field, leading Australia to a one-day international series win in England and sealing a 2-0 victory in the recent test series against New Zealand.
He will be hopeful of wrapping up another series against lowly West Indies with a win in the traditional Boxing Day test at the Melbourne Cricket Ground which starts on Saturday.
The solid run of results has masked the challenges Smith has faced in building cohesion in a team bereft of confidence from the morale-sapping Ashes loss and drained of experience by the string of retirements that followed.
A chance to bed down a squad of rookies on a two-test tour of Bangladesh was dashed by security concerns in the South Asian country, leaving the more challenging task of a confident and tenacious New Zealand side.
Although Smith has faced a steep learning curve, the new faces in the dressing room have also offered him a chance to imprint his authority, and the man that has emerged from under the wing of Clarke is quite different to his predecessor.
Smith has carried on Clarke’s dedication to attacking cricket but weeks after his permanent appointment in August, pointedly declared he would seek former skipper Ricky Ponting’s tips on how to manage a team.
Rumours of dressing room discord were a hallmark of Clarke’s four years in charge after taking over from Ponting, who was seen as a less inventive tactician but a more capable man manager.
“It probably is the toughest part,” Smith told the ESPNcricinfo website of managing his players.
“All the on-field stuff is probably easier. Not everyone’s going to get on. There’s going to be times when there’ll be arguments. We’re together for pretty much 300 days of the year, so it’s going to happen.”
Smith’s honeymoon period is unlikely to be ended on home pitches by a shambolic West Indies team, who were beaten in three days in the series-opener in Hobart.
His captaincy will face its biggest challenge on tour, starting with a New Zealand side itching for revenge in February, with a testing trip to Sri Lanka in July and August to follow.
(Editing by John O’Brien)