A lot has been said about the fairness of the bans for ball tampering and about how much it has affected the psyche of the players, with Australia’s T20 international captain Aaron Finch describing the scrutiny as “draining” when Australia won the first T20 international against India. The in-fighting is also an issue, with former Australian captain Michael Clarke criticising Australian coach Justin Langer’s “elite honesty” as meaning that Australia won’t win [anything] with that attitude, and there are so many other aspects to consider. All of these things, though, can be overcome by players. If they get into the right frame of mind then they can focus on the task and, as Australia’s T20 international team proved, they can show what they are capable of.
What can’t be overcome is the stark reality that Steve Smith and David Warner represent Australia’s two best test batsmen. Smith had scored 6,199 test runs at an average of 61.37 while Warner had managed 6,363 runs at 48.20. With 64 and 74 tests respectively, they represented two of the most experienced players in Australia. On top of that, they were the captain and vice captain. The question is not whether Australia lost anything so much as how much have they lost.
In the 2014/15 series, Steve Smith scored a century in every test, winning 2 man of the match awards and the man of the series award, scoring almost 100 runs more than the next best – Virat Kohli – who himself had an amazing series. Steve Smith has been the world’s number 1 ranked test batsman for more than 3 years. As at when the ban came, he was the world’s number 1 ranked player and had the 2nd highest rating in history, behind only the greatest player in history, Sir Donald Bradman. His test average of 61.37 represents the second greatest batting average, of players who played a decent number of tests, in history, and that was in spite of starting off his test career as a bowler, and batting at number 8.
To say that Steve Smith will be missed is an understatement. His average is 31 points higher than his replacement, Travis Head, but it is more than that. We go from having a true colossus of the game, one of the best there has ever been, to having someone who is a one day international specialist, someone with potential but who has yet to really perform. It’d be like if Virat Kohli was replaced with Rohit Sharma. It’s not the same.
David Warner, though, is also pretty good. He is easily Australia’s best opening batsman for the past 10 years, and, while he was a little bit out of form, averaging 39 in the past year, he wasn’t doing that badly, as he still got to double figures every innings he played in. Importantly, he is much better at home than away, and is especially good in those difficult 4th innings chases.
Figuring out who Warner’s replacement is is a difficult one. When Warner was banned, his opening partner was Cameron Bancroft, who in turn had replaced Matt Renshaw, but Renshaw isn’t in this series, as we have Aaron Finch, probably Warner’s replacement, joined by either Usman Khawaja, who partnered with him in the UAE, or Marcus Harris. While Harris was the 2nd highest run scorer in Australian domestic cricket last year, Renshaw was the highest, and Renshaw has been dumped.
Warner was the kind of player you could rely on. You could afford to have inexperienced test players like Bancroft, Renshaw or even new guys like Finch and Harris, if Warner was up the other end. With two inexperienced opening batsmen, as looks likely to occur against India, it is going to be very difficult, even though Finch did well in the UAE against Pakistan, where he scored 181 runs at an average of 45.25.
Quantifying how much of a difference this makes is difficult.
Since the ban, Australia have played just one test series, in UAE, which they lost 0-2 with 2 crushing losses in their previous tour, but now, without Smith and Warner, they did better, drawing one test and losing 0-1 instead of 0-2.
Australia did badly in the ODI series against South Africa, though arguably Smith and Warner may not have changed that, and in the T20I series against India, which Australia were expected to lose 0-3, instead they drew it 1-1.
While it is certainly bad to be missing your two best players, we need to remember just how big the difference between the two sides has been when they have played in Australia. In 2014/15 Australia won 2-0 and dominated all 4 tests, India struggling to escape with 2 draws where they were losing badly. To suggest that the absence of two players, even the best two players, will change a dominant series to being dominant the other way is farcical. If that is the result, then it won’t be due to Smith and Warner.
The difference is likely to change the margin, perhaps in every test, and perhaps even in the series as a whole. Where otherwise it may have been a 4-0 victory with India struggling for draws and no chance of winning, now India will be a chance to win a match, or perhaps even two, and then they just need to go for a draw in one of the two tests they look likely to lose and suddenly it’s a 2-1 series win to India.
It’s a long way from certain and it certainly won’t be easy, but it is possible if absolutely everything goes right, they get a lot of luck, and play to their best.
But it won’t be easy.