PETER LALOR: Why we don’t yet have an answer to the David Warner shaped hole in Australian cricket

Peter Lalor
The Nightly
5 Min Read
David Warner is proving a tough act to follow for Steve Smith.
David Warner is proving a tough act to follow for Steve Smith. Credit: Will Pearce

The cream of Australia’s cricketers are currently at the IPL making like husbands with a hall pass, forcing a pause on The Great Steve Smith Opening Experiment, but last week’s release of the latest contract list further underlines the David Warner shaped hole in Australian cricket.

With those next in line — Marcus Harris, Cameron Bancroft and Matthew Renshaw — falling further from consideration Warner’s replacement is no clearer than it has ever been.

With Steve Smith not totally convincing as a replacement - yet - the issue smoulders quietly in the background.

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Candice Warner’s observation that there was nobody there to replace him proved to be as factual as it was controversial. Sheffield Shield’s version of “I’m an Opener … Get Me In There” has proved a flop.

Yes, it was unusual circumstance which saw Smith elevated from four to the spot left by his former vice captain and long term team mate. Selectors acknowledge that.

It is not too often that somebody with the talent and long term potential of a Cameron Green comes along. It is an even rarer moment when two all rounders of that quality are on the scene at the same time, but that’s the happy headache the panel found themselves with after Mitch Marsh made the most of opportunity afforded him in the youngster’s absence.

Smith’s elevation was the right move regardless of whether it proves a success or not. Extreme circumstances called for extraordinary methods.

Australian sides of recent decades would have sold the family jewels for such a situation. How they envied England when Freddie Flintoff pulled off those remarkable feats in 2005. Shane Watson and Andrew Symonds both had the talent and were great servants of their sides, but Marsh and Green promise even more.

With Aaron Hardie’s emergence in first class cricket and appearance on the contract list it seems Australian all rounders are making like buses: all arriving at once.

Bancroft, Renshaw and Harris were the three groomed to open for Australia in recent years. All three seem further from return than at any time in the recent past.

Harris, 31, has not played for Australia since January 2022, Bancroft who is the same age last appeared at Lord’s in 2019 and Renshaw, 28, made an appearance as a concussion sub at Delhi in 2023 but had played the previous Test in place of Travis Head.

All got their opportunity to bat with Warner or in his absence but none find themselves on the 2024-25 contract list.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 10: Steve Smith of Australia looks dejected after being dismissed by Matt Henry of New Zealand during day three of the Second Test in the series between New Zealand and Australia at Hagley Oval on March 10, 2024 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
Steve Smith has struggled to make inroads as Australia’s latest Test opening batter. Credit: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

Pat Cummins had comforting words for the trio when Smith was chosen.

“In international cricket, there’s always injuries or these guys (the incumbents) aren’t going to be around forever,” he said. “Marcus and Cam are still relatively young, as is Renners. So once that opening comes up at some point, any one of them we’re confident can jump straight in and do a really good job.”

Australia have nine Test matches on its dance card in the 12 months covered by the contract period. First up - and most compelling - is the recently expanded five match Border Gavaskar series.

The Indians beat Australia in four successive series and two of those have been humiliations at home. To lose to India in India is somewhat acceptable, but lose in front of a home crowd and the consequences can be considerable.

The last great ruction in Australian cricket was caused by England 3-1 in the 2010-11 series.

The great replacement after the retirements of Hayden, Langer, Warne, Gilchrist and the like had not gone to plan. Ricky Ponting was compelled to stay longer than he should have and results were patchy.

Similar could happen if things go pear shaped against India this summer or England the following.

Among Australia’s batters a similar period threatens: Warner is gone, Usman Khawaja is batting in slippers and a dressing gown, the workings of Steve Smith’s mind are a mystery to most but he is closer to the exit these days.

The three quicks are getting long in the tooth, but Nathan Lyon looks set to play at least until he qualifies for a pensioner concession on public transport.

In the song “Mass Production”, Iggy Pop asks his departing girlfriend to do him a favour and leave him the number of a “girl like you with legs almost like you”.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 10: Usman Khawaja of Australia bats during day three of the Second Test in the series between New Zealand and Australia at Hagley Oval on March 10, 2024 in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)
Usman Khawaja’s career is also approaching its end making the issue of who is Australia’s next Test opener more acute. Credit: Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images

If anyone has the number of an opener like Warner, a savant like Smith or a fellow with the experience and elegance of Khawaja could they please pass them on to George Bailey and Andrew McDonald.

If someone should know a bowling trio as good as Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood . . .

Departing WACA chief executive Christina Matthews noted that in cricket we too often expect a player’s replacement to immediately be as good as the former incumbent. Such expectation made Lyon and the aspiring spinners of his era’s life extremely difficult as Australia cast about for someone to replace Shane Warne.

The concern here is not that Harris, Renshaw or Bancroft have not made the current contract list so much as the absence of somebody ready to face the new ball or bat high in the order.

This selection panel has held its nerve and steered a steady course in its time, but life is relatively easy when the results are going your way. The hard work starts when they don’t. How much faith do you show in the incumbents? How long do you stick with a slow starting hopeful? How much leeway do champions receive?

Bailey says it is up to those outside the squad to force their way into the side.

“I think given the performances of the team over a period of time, I think the onus is on those outside to make ar eally compelling case of why someone should be displaced,” he said when the new contract list was released.

“And I do think that the guys we have there are in the team for a reason, that top seven are all very good players, they’ve had good performances across a long period of time. Continue to back them and expect them to perform. Hard to project forward to something that’s 10 months away, feels like there’s a lot of moving parts and water that can go under the bridge to there, but I don’t think our thinking around it will change, it will be about trying to get the best six together and making sure they function well together.”

It is going to be a fascinating couple of years in Australian cricket. Change is inevitable but at this point the shape of that change eludes us.

Let’s hope it’s a while coming.

Peter Lalor is a Channel 7 cricket correspondent with more than 20 years covering the sport.

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