Smith, Warner leadership failure leads to defining vice-captain's role
A failed leadership union between Steven Smith and David Warner has moved Cricket Australia to belatedly address one of the national team's oldest festering sores by formally defining the job of vice-captain and instituting an interview process to determine the player who will serve under Test captain Tim Paine.
Despite being identified as an area of concern as far back as the 2011 Argus review, Australia's vice-captaincy has remained a less understood and analysed role, with appointments more often than not going to players deemed the most likely back-up captain rather than the best-supporting team-mate to aid the full-time leader.
ESPNcricinfo has learnt that numerous senior figures protested to then selection chairman Rod Marsh and also the CA chief executive James Sutherland about the concept of appointing Smith and Warner as a leadership duo in 2015, rather than choosing the captain and then looking to identify the best person to play the supporting role. Conjecture over the appointment of Warner was somewhat revealed by Sutherland's words a few days before its announcement that "I don't think that's necessarily an obvious next step".
These representations were made either side of the formal announcement of Smith as captain and Warner as deputy late in the 2015 Ashes tour, replacing the retiring Michael Clarke and Brad Haddin, and continued well into the home summer that followed. However, Smith and Warner were to remain captain and deputy through various up and down results, until the fateful day at Newlands that led to both being banned from international and domestic cricket for a year, with Warner also banned from leadership positions for life. Smith bluntly said of the ball-tampering scandal: "It was a failure of leadership, of my leadership."
As a result, the CA Board, the team performance chief Pat Howard and the national selectors agreed to set up a formal application process for the position of vice-captain this time around, with interested players from the squad, which will face Pakistan in the UAE, to be interviewed by the selectors on their readiness and view of the position. A decision on the identity of the vice-captain is expected to be made in time for the first Test, in Dubai from October 7.
"We're not going to announce the vice-captain. We're going through a process at the moment which is a bit different to what we usually do in Australian cricket," coach Justin Langer said of the unprecedented move. "But what I do know is there are five or six guys who are in the hunt for leadership positions in white-ball and red-ball cricket. There are a couple of guys, we'll announce that in due course.
"There are a number of guys who captain their states now. Mitch [Marsh] will certainly be in the hunt. He's just coming back from his surgery, he's captain of Western Australia so there's no doubt he'll be one of the frontrunners for vice-captaincy. Aaron Finch is also the captain of the Twenty20 side, [but] hasn't played Test cricket yet.
"Josh Hazlewood is not on this tour but is that highly regarded within the group. Travis Head is another one. Guys like Shaun Marsh and Usman Khawaja. A lot of good young leaders there. Whoever gets the title that'll be one thing, as long as we've got lots of leaders that's what worries me."
Back in 2015, the arguments against appointing Smith and Warner as a leadership duo was because of the fact that both had supporters as potential captains, rather than one being a dominant leadership figure and the other a happy lieutenant. This reality was to be demonstrated whenever Warner deputised as captain for a resting or injured Smith, showing an outsized eagerness for leadership that put him in a far more central role than he took up whenever the full-time captain was present.
This pattern was consistent with previous problematic leadership duos, whether it was Mark Taylor as deputy to Allan Border, Clarke vice-captain to Ricky Ponting, or Shane Watson as deputy to Clarke. A glaring lack of focus on the importance of vice-captain's role was summed up by the fact that during the 2011 CA board teleconference to debate upon whether Clarke should succeed Ponting. The debate over the selectors' recommendation of Watson as vice-captain took place as a virtual afterthought as directors looked to conclude the call - then deputy chairman Wally Edwards, his line having dropped out, was not part of the discussion at all.
Later that year, the Argus review included the following observation about the vice-captaincy: "The captain should also actively seek and use the counsel of his vice-captain, which is an important role and should be more clearly defined." It was a directive followed somewhat when Haddin was called up to serve as Clarke's deputy in 2013 after Watson's resignation, chosen as a respected figure without outright leadership ambitions who also knew how to work with Clarke.
"Vice-captaincy is a low-profile job that's not fully understood by many, but it is vital to helping get a successful team moving in the right direction together," Haddin wrote in a 2016 ESPNcricinfo column. "One bedrock of the gig is to have a deputy committed to that role, rather than thinking about being captain himself. That was certainly the case with me.
"The other foundation of the job is a relationship with the captain that allows you to speak frankly with him about where the team is going - in private rather than in front of the team. Keeping an ear to the ground and communicating with other players and then relaying that to the leader when necessary.
"If you look back through the recent history of Australian cricket, the examples are plentiful. Geoff Marsh was a terrific lieutenant to Allan Border, Ian Healy to Mark Taylor, and Adam Gilchrist to Ricky Ponting. They are three contrasting characters, but what they had in common was no great desire to be captain. I saw Gilly's work up close as a junior member of the squad, and he was a terrific link man between the leadership and the team."