With Smith and Warner back, Australia primed for World Cup
Steve Smith shadow batting in the team bus. Steve Smith shadow batting in the shower. Steve Smith shadow batting on the sand.
Why would the head coach of the Australia cricket team risk feeding mental images like that to the Barmy Army via the British media ahead of the Cricket World Cup?
Because Smith is back, his 12-month ban fully served. Because Smith is scoring runs. Time for head coach Justin Langer, Australia's World Cup (and redemption) campaign director, to set a scene for the next act.
So in response to recent questions about the return of ex-captain Smith and his former deputy David Warner just in time for Australia's World Cup title defense, Langer has been trying to paint a picture of Smith being back to his idiosyncratic, fidgety ways rather than going over history.
"We're in the bus playing cards; he's just shadow batting the whole time," Langer says at a practice session in England. "He loves batting, he's shadow batting on the sand. In the shower he's shadow batting — I'm not joking. He just loves batting. It's great to have him back."
For the uninitiated, shadow batting is like shadow boxing — a batter repeatedly practicing shots without actually hitting a ball, just as a boxer would throw combinations of punches into thin air.
He's preparing for the hostile reception. There's nothing new in that for Australian cricket teams in England, although the barbs from the so-called Barmy Army will no doubt be sharper and more pointed this time — with Smith and Warner as particular targets.
"We know what we're going to get. We'll be ready for it," Langer says. Smith and Warner have "worked through a really tough 12 months. They'll be thicker skinned for it."
Langer, a hardy former test opener, took over as national coach in the wake of the ball-tampering saga in South Africa that resulted in lengthy bans for Smith, Warner and opener Cameron Bancroft and turned a blowtorch onto the Australian game. Smith allegedly didn't do enough to stop the clumsy plan hatched between Warner and Bancroft to scratch the surface of the leather ball with sandpaper so that it was better for their team's bowlers.
After a painful period of rehabilitation, when the losses mounted up and the Australian cricket public's anger gradually subsided in the wake of the cheating scandal, Langer's lineup got onto an eight-game winning roll to beat India and Pakistan in back-to-back ODI series in Asia — and that's before Smith and Warner returned.
Warner re-entered on the back of some big innings in the Indian Premier League and Smith has regained his touch in warmup games against New Zealand and West Indies.
As for Warner, Langer says: "Dave has got that look in his eye, he's really hungry. He's a great player ... so dynamic, he brings so much energy."
For all that, it's far from a two-man team. Opener Aaron Finch, elevated to the captaincy last year, was part of Australia's title-winning run on home soil in 2015 and has regained the confidence that deserted him in 2018.
Usman Khawaja has scored enough runs to add some intrigue as to who bats in what position at the top of the order. Khawaja is reportedly OK after a head knock in a warmup game against the West Indies, meaning Warner may have to bat at No. 3.
Mitchell Starc, player of the tournament in 2015 when Australia won the World Cup for a fifth time, has slowly returned from injury and is ready to unleash his swinging yorker. He'll be back to help Pat Cummins, who matured considerably as a fast bowler with some extra responsibility in recent months.
The pace bowling unit is missing veteran seamer Josh Hazlewood, who according to Langer hasn't played enough cricket in the last few months, and Jhye Richardson, who failed to recover from an injury he sustained in the series win over Pakistan. Other pace alternatives are Nathan Coulter-Nile, Jason Behrendorff, and Kane Richardson, and there's backup in the spin department from Adam Zampa and the recalled Nathan Lyon.
The squad has had a month to get Smith and Warner reintegrated and work on a game plan, which will no doubt revolve around attacking with the bat, with the ball, and in the field, albeit with Langer's insistence on humility and a more controlled aggression.
Australia is fifth in the ODI world rankings, but it won the World Cup the last time it was held in England in 1999, and has triumphed in three of the four subsequent editions.
"We're just continuing the Australian way," Langer says. "We've got such a proud history. We know what works. We just have to keep trusting that."
John Pye is at www.twitter.com/byJohnPye