Steve Smith has been unshackled from the ‘Mr Fix-it’ role as Australia seek to unlock their underperforming star’s T20 explosiveness ahead of this year’s World Cup.
Smith started his international career as a dynamic limited-overs player but admits his recent returns in the shortest format have diminished, even despite featuring in Australia’s drought-breaking T20 world title win in the UAE last year.
The emergence of Mitch Marsh (who now occupies the No.3 spot that once belonged to Smith), Glenn Maxwell and Marcus Stoinis as middle-order lynchpins has seen Smith’s spot in the national T20 side questioned.
Josh Inglis, who has looked at home in his introduction to international cricket, and freelance T20 gun-for-hire Tim David are also snapping at his heels.
The perceived value of Smith was underlined when he was overlooked at an Indian Premier League auction for the first time earlier this year, having eleven commanded multi-million dollar contracts.
The right-hander’s strike-rate across last year’s IPL and the ensuing World Cup, both played in the UAE, was 107.
For Australia at least, that drop can be partially attributed to the anchor role he had been asked to perform, with Smith instructed to be the side’s middle-order banker in case his bigger-hitting teammates did not come off.
But now, the 33-year-old has been told to stop fixing and start firing.
“I’m pretty excited that tag’s been taken off, to be honest with you,” Smith told cricket.com.au ahead of Australia’s Sri Lanka tour-opening T20I in Colombo.
“Diva (stand-in coach Michael di Venuto) actually told me the other day … he said ‘we’re getting rid of that tag, that’s gone. Just go out and play freely. If you want to smack your first or second ball for six, go for it’.
“And I’m like, ‘yeah, that’s cool’.
“So now it’s just about going out and playing freely and trusting my instincts, which I think I’ve done well over any format for a long time, instead of being a bit more reserved and trying not to get out, which I don’ Don’t think the right way to play T20 cricket.
“They’ve got rid of that ‘Mr. Fix-it’ tag.”
The concept of a T20 anchor was popular at last year’s World Cup in the UAE, where it was expected pitches worn down by an IPL campaign would begin to slow down and put an increased emphasis on skill and craft as opposed to raw power.
Kane Williamson and Dawid Malan were employed in similar roles for their sides, though the tournament turned out to be higher-scoring than expected.
The fact Smith’s strike-rate is noticeably better at home, reaching a mark of 134 in T20Is played there over the last six years, will be heartening for Australia as they host a men’s T20 World Cup for the first time later this year.
“When I’m playing the role that I was picked to play previously, you’re not as aggressive or free flowing as you could be,” Smith explained.
“Then you see guys like ‘Maxi’ and ‘Stoin’ behind you and you suddenly feel pressure to turn the switch on straightaway.
“That’s not the way I’d generally play the game.
“… When I’m playing well, I’m just hitting the gaps really nicely, I’m not trying to over-hit the ball. I’m just playing what’s in front of me, not thinking too much about getting out or letting the team down.”
Smith’s absence from the IPL allowed him to six weeks in New York on holiday with his wife Danni, while he has also been able to spend time rehabilitating his troublesome left elbow.
Speaking on the Unplayable Podcast, he also opened up on the bouts of vertigo that have afflicted him and which he believes are linked to the multiple concussions he has suffered.
Smith, who was famously struck in the helmet by Jofra Archer during the 2019 Ashes and then suffered another head knock in February while fielding in a T20 against Sri Lanka, requires a procedure called the Epley manoeuvre to stop the room from spinning around him.
That technique, which requires the patient’s head to be carefully manipulated to allow the relocation of ‘ear rocks’ (sometimes called ear crystals), had to be performed on Smith seven times on the morning of an ODI against India in 2020.
“It’s a weird feeling – the room starts spinning and I generally throw up straight afterwards,” he said.
“I’m just really crooked and trying to align my eyes back to normal.
“The way they’ve fixed it is (a doctor) does a thing called the Epley manoeuvre … it hopefully flushes the crystals back to where they’re supposed to go.
“I have had a couple of episodes of vertigo that have tended to come a few days after I’ve hit my head.
“It’s certainly not a nice feeling, I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone. Fingers crossed no more head knocks, hopefully I’ve seen the last of them.”
Qantas Tour of Sri Lanka, 2022
Sri Lanka T20 squad: Dasun Shanaka (c), Pathum Nissanka, Danushka Gunathilaka, Kusal Mendis, Charith Asalanka, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Nuwanidu Fernando, Lahiru Madushanka, Wanindu Hasaranga, Chamika Karunaratne, Dushmantha Chameera, Kasun Rajitha, Nuwan Thushara, Matheesha Pathirana, Ramesh Mendis, Maheesh Theekshana , Praveen Jayawickrama, Lakshan Sandakan. Standby: Jeffrey Vandersay, Niroshan Dickwella
Australia T20 squad: Aaron Finch (c), Sean Abbott, Ashton Agar, Josh Hazlewood, Josh Inglis, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Jhye Richardson, Kane Richardson, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner, Matthew Wade
June 7: First T20, Colombo, 11.30pm AEST
June 11: Third T20, Kandy, 11.30pm AEST
Sri Lanka ODI squad (provisional): Dasun Shanaka (c), Danushka Gunathilaka, Pathum Nissanka, Kusal Mendis, Charith Asalanka, Bhanuka Rajapaksa, Dhananjaya De Silva, Ashen Bandara, Dinesh Chandimal, Niroshan Dickwella, Janith Liyanage, Dunith Wellalage, Dhananjaya Lakshan, Sahan Arachchi, Wanindu Hasaranga, Chamika Karunaratne, Lahiru Madushanka, Ramesh Mendis, Dushmantha Chameera, Binura Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka, Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha, Jeffrey Vandersay, Maheesh Theekshana, Praveen Jayawickrama
Australia ODI squad: Aaron Finch (c), Ashton Agar, Alex Carey, Pat Cummins, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Marnus Labuschagne, Mitchell Marsh, Glenn Maxwell, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Marcus Stoinis, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
June 14: First ODI, Kandy, 7pm AEST
June 16: Second ODI, Kandy, 7pm AEST
June 19: Third ODI, Colombo, 7pm AEST
June 21: Fourth ODI, Colombo, 7pm AEST
June 24: Fifth ODI, Colombo, 7pm AEST
Sri Lanka Test squad (provisional): Dimuth Karunaratne (c), Pathum Nissanka, Kamil Mishara, Oshada Fernando, Kusal Mendis, Angelo Mathews, Dhananjaya De Silva, Kamindu Mendis, Niroshan Dickwella, Dinesh Chandimal, Chamika Karunaratne, Ramesh Mendis, Mohamed Shiraz, Shiran Fernando, Dilshan Madushanka, Lahiru Kumara, Kasun Rajitha, Vishwa Fernando, Asitha Fernando, Jeffrey Vandersay, Lakshitha Rasanjana, Praveen Jayawickrama, Lasith Embuldeniya, Suminda Lakshan
Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Ashton Agar, Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Swepson, David Warner
June 29 – July 3: First Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
July 8-12: Second Test, Galle, 2.30pm AEST
All Sri Lanka v Australia international fixtures will be screened live on Fox Cricket and Kayo Sports
Australia A fixtures
Squad: Sean Abbott, Scott Boland, Pete Handscomb, Aaron Hardie, Marcus Harris, Travis Head, Henry Hunt, Josh Inglis, Matthew Kuhnemann, Nic Maddinson, Todd Murphy, Josh Philippe, Matt Renshaw, Jhye Richardson, Tanveer Sangha, Mark Steketee
June 8: First one-day game v Sri Lanka A, Colombo
June 10: Second one-day game v Sri Lanka A, Colombo
June 14-17: first-class tour match v Sri Lanka A, Hambantota
June 21-24: first-class tour match v Sri Lanka A, Hambantota