January 10, 2024

Smith defying history with high risk, high reward move up the order

By Malcolm Conn
January 10, 2024 — 7.30pm
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When Steve Smith walks out to open the batting against the West Indies next week he will be following in the footsteps of a legend.

Smith will join just one other person with more than 8000 Test runs to have batted in every position from opener to No.9: West Indian great Garfield Sobers.

Like Sobers, Smith began his career at No.9 as a bowling all-rounder but, unlike Smith, the brilliant left-hander spent the second half of his remarkable 20-year career following a well-worn path drifting down the batting order. There are any number of good to greats who have let gravity take hold as the game seemed to speed up around them.

Ricky Ponting moved down a spot to No.4 for his last 15 Tests as his average subsided from a career-high 60 to less than 52. Cricket’s coolest batsman, Viv Richards, dropped from No.3 to No.4 then to No.5 for the second half of his stunning, swaggering journey, as his average drifted from the 60s to 50.

Allan Border, who had none of Richards’ swagger but all of his courage and more, stood up to the might of the West Indies fast bowlers at their most brutal during the 1980s, played the leg-spin of Abdul Qadir in Pakistan without neutral umpires, and still finished with a better average away than he did in Australia.

Border batted at No.4 more than any other position, but also spent significant time at No.5 and No.6, where he alternated for his last two years as the side grew under him from a basket case in the mid ’80s to a genuine force. His average hovered around 50 for much of his career.

Steve Smith’s average has been on the decline in recent years.Credit: Getty

One player who did reluctantly move up the order later in his career, former captain Michael Clarke, watched his average fall from a career high of 53 to 49 in his last 24 Tests, before retiring after the 2015 Ashes defeat.

So Smith, 34, the one time leg-spinner who became the world’s best batsman, is defying history and possibly father time. He is taking the bold high risk, high reward option of moving up the order from No.4 in the belief it will revitalise a career that, by his astonishing standards, appears to be stagnating.


Rightly regarded as Australia’s best since Don Bradman, his career average has slipped from 65 during his stratospheric 2019 tour of England to 58, and during the past 12 months it has been 39. It is now 14 innings since he scored his last century, which was during the second Test at Lord’s against England in June.

The frustration is clearly showing as he attempts to produce long innings and keeps finding ways to get out. There must be some bats in the vast array he carries with him that have dodgy handles after the anguish of being dismissed is expressed with a forceful jam of the willow, pushing it into the pitch as he bends forward, head bowed.

The most excruciating of these dismissals brought stumps on the third day of the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne. Smith had scored just one run in the final hour before fending a short ball into the gully for a simple catch. Smith’s period of mourning bent over a stressed bat lingered before he eventually made his way to the change rooms.

“It looked pretty tough out there,” I said to a player-turned-commentator in an MCG lift after play.

“Not as tough as Smithy made it look,” he replied.

“What’s going on with Steve?” I asked one of his former teammates.


“He lacks intent,” came the reply. “He’s batting for time.”

Some believe Smith is moving up the order to find another gear. At the risk of widespread scoffing, it worked for him in Twenty20 cricket. After being a peripheral member of Australia T20 squad early last season, Smith was given the chance to open the batting for the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash. There was a startling transformation, which included successive centuries and a strike rate of more than 180.

And given the weakness of the West Indies attack he will face in Adelaide and Brisbane later this month, Smith will have every chance of filling his boots during the next few weeks.

However, the reality beyond that will be somewhat different during next month’s two-Test tour of New Zealand on what may well be seaming wickets. Then next season India will return with their strong pace attack, having won their past two series in Australia.

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Malcolm Conn is Chief Cricket Writer.Connect via Twitter or email.


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