Steve Smith is halfway through the toughest gig in a captain’s career – a tour to India. That’s hardly korma cool at the best of times, but it’s vindaloo hot with the volatile Virat as his opposite number with R. Ashwin picking apart batsmen’s techniques like a keyhole surgeon and Ravindra Jadeja’s deja vu consistency gnawing at the concentration, hour after hour. Smith needs help – anyone would – so who does he turn to? Aw look mate, it’s David Warner.
His vice-captain and senior batsman has reached double figures in all four of his innings to date but has registered a top score of just 38 (in his first knock of the series) undone by impetuosity or flawed technique. There is no shame in that (well, maybe the premeditated swipes could be shelved) but that trot fails to inspire confidence in Warner’s ability to meet the very specific demands of subcontinental cricket. Like a kid nervous in the examinations hall, he’s answering the question he wants to see on the paper and not the one that’s actually been set. The game is different in the Northern Hemisphere, as his record of centuries (17 South, 1 North) suggests.
Though he’ll keep the opening slot and the vice-captain role short of injury or an attempted “Miandad on Lillee” response to Jadeja (though that too might be explained away as a “brain fade”), Warner hardly looks like the man to stand in for Smith or eventually succeed him in a team lacking experience. Nathan Lyon would be an option, but his place in the team is often in question and he seems just too nice a guy to narrow the eyes and chew the gum as an heir to Chappelli et al. So who?
Tall, precocious left-handed openers don’t have a bad record when it comes to leadership. Alastair Cook won 24 and lost 22 of his 59 Tests as captain – not great, but certainly not bad either. Graeme Smith won 53 and lost 29 of his 109 Tests as captain, the job thrust upon him at the age of 22 in (shall we say) less than ideal circumstances.
Matt Renshaw looks cut from the same bloodyminded mould as Cook and Smith. Unlikely to be distracted by IPL or other T20 franchise riches in the short to medium term, he looks perfectly suited to Test cricket. Having already banked a monumental innings of 184 vs Pakistan in his fourth Test, his credit is good for a while yet and, unlike his opening partner, you can almost see him learning on the job, as he plays each ball on its merits according to the pitch’s caprice, considers whether to seek to change the tempo of an innings and acts accordingly and smiles wryly as the wind-ups slide past a sanguine personality. There may be a bit of confirmation bias in play here, but when I look at the Indians, I see a respect for Renshaw that is absent when they bowl to Warner. That too is something the twenty year-old shares with the young Alastair Cook.
Though the game enjoys leaping up to bite on the bum anyone so blasé as to make long term predictions, I’m going to say that Renshaw, seven years younger than Steven Smith, is already a short-priced favourite to be the Baggy Greens’ next captain – so why not get him into the leadership group at the earliest opportunity? Even if the product of the Australian system (though, I must point out, holder of a British passport) is the most reticent Aussie in history, it’s impossible to believe that he’d offer much less than Warner, whose batting might be freed up in overseas Tests without the additional responsibility of vice-captaincy. That said, the self-possession evident in this teenage interview reminds me of one given by Adam Gilchrist at a similar age – and he did okay didn’t he?