The vice-captaincy in cricket has rarely been held in high regard. Indeed, plenty of Test teams have not deigned to have a vice-captain at all.
But in the case of Steve Smith, that law does not apply. Instead, Australia’s decision to appoint Smith as deputy to Pat Cummins, now anointed as the country’s 47th Test skipper in the wake of Tim Paine’s resignation, risks ripping open the old wounds sustained by ‘Sandpaper-gate’ in 2018.
The vice-captain to Cummins promises to be unusually important. Fast bowlers are naturally more susceptible to injury and rotation than batsmen, and while Cummins has not missed a Test since Oct 2018, a schedule which includes up to 25 days of Ashes cricket in six weeks is onerous.
If Cummins is forced to miss a Test, Smith will step up in his absence. And it is that prospect which has proved so divisive.
"We all love Steve Smith and are proud that he's the best Test batsmen in the world again," said Shane Warne, himself sacked as vice-captain because of off-field indiscretions, in a column for the Herald Sun . “But he should not be the Australia vice-captain.
"His second chance is getting to play for Australia again and in my opinion announcing him as vice-captain opens up CA for ridicule and criticism, and they should throw the code of conduct out the window."
A narrower cricketing objection to Smith's appointment, expressed by former skipper Greg Chappell, is that, aged 32 and given his history, Smith is not likely to become full-time captain again. As such, the role could have been given to Marnus Labuschagne, who would have been exposed to new responsibility as vice-captain, while Cummins would still have been free to use Smith's consul.
The simplest riposte to this argument is that Cummins strongly advocated for Smith as his vice-captain.
“I think there’s a couple of more unknowns about having a bowling captain and that’s why from the outset I was absolutely determined if I was captain to have someone like Steve as vice-captain next to me,” Cummins said when he was unveiled as captain.
“A 22-degree day might look differently to a 40-degree day. There will be times on the field where I’ll throw to Steve and you’ll see Steve move fielders around, maybe doing bowling changes, taking a bit more of an elevated vice-captaincy role and that’s what I really want.
“That’s what I’ve asked and I’m really glad Steve is happy with that as well. We’ll nut out exactly how that works, but it’s going to be a real collaborative approach. Steve has got such huge strength especially around tactically out on the field.”
Naturally, the notion that Smith's chequered leadership history makes him unfit to ever be in a position to captain in a Test match still lingers. As he has admitted, Smith erred terribly in 2018, when he, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft were revealed to have engaged in a plot to doctor the ball in a Test against South Africa.
But he has been punished, and gravely: being sacked as captain and banned from the sport for a year was far in excess of all previous punishments for ball-tampering. Mike Atherton led England for four years after the dirt-in-the-pocket affair. Altogether more seriously, Graham Gooch captained the England Test team after captaining a rebel tour to apartheid South Africa.
Besides, Smith can point to work he has done off the field as proof of a new-found maturity. He has been prominently involved with Gotcha 4 Life, a men's suicide prevention charity. Smith initially worked with the charity as part of the community service imposed as part of his punishment, but has continued to be involved since.
"It's difficult work, really emotional work. It's not easy at all," radio presenter Gus Worland, who created the charity, told the Sydney Morning Herald recently. "The fact Steve has wanted to do it is huge and the fact he got so much confidence from the fact he could help save people's lives, I have absolutely no doubt he has grown and become more confident through what he's been through."
As he showed in the 2019 Ashes, Smith doesn't need the captaincy to provide Australian cricket with leadership. But if he handed the armband again in the weeks ahead, it would be proof that, when it comes to scripting unlikely comebacks, sport even trumps politics.
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