Australia captain Steven Smith has demanded more of the Ashes wicketkeeping frontrunner Peter Nevill, and also lashed out at accusations that he has allowed the personal to interfere with the professional in team selection.
Speaking candidly on the eve of a Sheffield Shield match in which he will lead a full-strength New South Wales against Western Australia – including his likely bowling attack for the first Test at the Gabba – Smith revealed he had spoken with Nevill about the need for the gloveman to use more voice in the middle, a quality that helped Matthew Wade usurp the Blues wicketkeeper in the first place.
“I’ve spoken to Pete; we had a chat and I said I probably just need a little bit more from you, and I need you to drive the boys and get the boys up and about,” Smith said in Sydney. “That’s the pretty important job of a wicketkeeper, to ensure the guys have the energy out in the middle and that we are doing everything we can. I’ve spoken to him about that.
“It’s just a presence sort of thing. For a captain out in the middle I’ve always got a lot on my mind, I’m doing different things, so for a keeper it’s about ensuring that the energy’s up and if someone needs a little pick-me-up, go and get them, go and touch them and make sure that we’re doing what we need to do. Those are important things to do for a wicketkeeper.
“I don’t think it’s ‘nice’, I don’t think that’s an issue, I don’t have a problem with people being nice. It’s just making sure that there’s a presence out in the middle and guys are getting the energy around and ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to be ready to go and taking our half chances.”
Nevill, on his part, has always defined himself as a leader by actions as much as words. Last year, when speaking to ESPNcricinfo, he denied he was “quiet” on the field, but indicated he would be open to change if Smith ever asked him directly. Smith’s deputy David Warner recently indicated he would be more vocal in this Ashes series than he had been for the past two years, when he earned the nickname “the reverend” for eschewing earlier combative tendencies.
“I think that’s a common misconception: saying that I’m not vocal, because I’d be the most vocal person on the field – it’s just purely directed towards our team,” Nevill had said. “But if Steve was to tap me on the shoulder and say, ‘I’d like a bit more of that out of you’, then I’d certainly oblige.
“Even without thinking about it, you find a nice little equilibrium where you’re comfortable operating at. For some guys, they like to get into a verbal contest, and they find that gets the best out of them. I’ve never needed to do that to get myself in that optimal space. It hasn’t been something I’ve ever thought would that help me play better if I did that’.”
Wade has always taken pride in his ability to unsettle opposition players as a competitive advantage, and Smith has said numerous times previously that he admires the Victorian’s terrier-like qualities. However, a batting average of barely 20 since returning to the Test team a year ago has left the door open for Nevill and also the untried South Australian Alex Carey.
“I’ve said for a while that Matty brings a lot to the team,” Smith said. “He provides some good energy, he’s a good sounding board for me too. He understands the game really well but in the end you need guys that are performing. He’s got another opportunity this week to come out and keep well and hopefully get some runs and keep putting his name up there. So it’s a big week this week, no doubt.”
The balance of body language and energy on the field for Australia has been an issue at times under Smith’s leadership, and he admitted he was still a work-in-progress as far as his own comportment was concerned. “Fair point; it’s something that I’ve been working on for awhile, I probably don’t do myself any favours with my hand gestures,” he said.
“I’ve got long arms and you see the way I fidget when I bat that it’s just there. I’ve tried a few different techniques to try to keep my emotions in check, it’s still something I’m working on, that’s for sure.”
As for the contention that he has been involved in picking “mates” rather than superior players for Australia, levelled by the former fast bowler Rodney Hogg among others, Smith was blunt. Hogg had raised the example of Nic Maddinson playing for Australia last summer, while there has also been plenty of discussion about the call to play Daniel Hughes ahead of Ed Cowan in the NSW XI.
“I’m not a selector but I certainly speak to the selectors a lot and express my views – all this rubbish about me picking my mates is absolute garbage. I certainly don’t agree with that,” Smith said. “People can say what they like, I’ll read it. So it doesn’t bother me and I just get on with it.”
More bothersome for Smith is the fact he is looking for runs to groove his technique ahead of the Ashes, after wrist and shoulder problems restricted him at times during the year. “I just need to figure out how to hold the bat again,” he said. “Haven’t felt great for a little while now and just need to spend some time in the middle. Had a really good hit today, felt like I figured things out at the end and hopefully I can put that into the middle.
“It happens every now and again. I just haven’t felt quite right the last couple of weeks, just trying to get it right and make sure that everything’s okay. I think I’ve made some progress the last couple of days. It’ll be good to spend some time in the middle to just reaffirm that.”
The pitch for the Shield match at Hurstville Oval is expected to be well-grassed, meaning Smith and his teammates may yet find the going difficult against WA’s seamers, including the left-arm swingman Jason Behrendorff.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig
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