English cricket divided on Steve Smith playing for Sussex ahead of Ashes series

It is a debate that has been going almost as long as Australians have been crossing the world to experience damp wickets, warm beer and milky tea.

Does allowing Australians to play domestic red ball cricket hinder England’s chances of winning the famous little urn?

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The debate has been given fresh impetus by Steve Smith signing to play three matches for Sussex in May with the express intention of tuning up for the Ashes series, which begins in June.

In his second match he’s likely to be facing Marnus Labushchagne, though the latter’s presence is less controversial as he has been playing for Glamorgan for several years.

That said, when Labushchagne turbo-charged his Test career in stunning fashion as a concussion substitute for Smith at Lord’s in 2019 he came straight from the Glamorgan crease and was bang in form.

English cricket is divided as to whether to allow Steve Smith pre-Ashes batting practice. Credits: AAP extension

England captain Ben Stokes wasn’t too keen when the prospect of Smith joining Sussex was floated.

“It’s good for the county game to see players of Steve’s caliber want to come over and play,” he said. “But I don’t know. It’s one of those where you probably prefer them not to get any game time in England before the Ashes.”

Mo Bobat, England men’s cricket performance director, a key figure in the set-up, took a different view.

“It’s good for our bowlers to bowl at Steve Smith. It’s good for young batters to bat with him. There is upside,” he said.

“You could say it helps him prep and that could be a disadvantage to England. I don’t spend too much time thinking about that. If we play to our potential we know we can beat anyone, the way we are playing our cricket. We will focus on that.”

At Sussex Smith will be facing England seamer Ollie Robinson in the nets. He’ll be batting alongside promising young opener Tom Haines. He might face teenage sensation Rehan Ahmed when Sussex visits Leicestershire, though legspin doesn’t feature much in England in May.

At Worcester he should play against bat Jack Haynes and fast bowler Josh Tongue, both shortly to fly with Haines to Sri Lanka for a tour with England Lions, the country’s ‘A’ team.

Former England bowler turned commentator Jonathan Agnew agrees with Bobat, citing the benefits he gained playing alongside West Indian great Andy Roberts.

Indeed, in county cricket’s heyday many English players from gained sharing a dressing room with the likes of Shane Warne, Steve Waugh, Allan Border, Dennis Lille and Terry Alderman.

Bobat’s only complaint is that it is not reciprocal.

Plenty of young Englishmen play grade cricket, which is generally a higher standard than English club cricket (which many Australians, including Warne and Smith, have enjoyed) but very few have figured in the Sheffield Shield.

“I’d love to get more of our players in first-class cricket overseas,” he said. “It’s notoriously difficult. It’s not particularly easy in Australia, can’t really do it in India. It would be nice if our players could sample a bit of that in red-ball cricket.”

Will Smith’s warm-up help Australia win the Ashes? It’s not as if he is a stranger to English conditions, he racked up 774 runs at an average of 110.57 in the 2019 series.

But as New Zealand’s World Test Championship 2021 victory over India in England showed, coming after two Tests against their hosts, the chance of a revision session on the Old Country’s famously soft, seaming wickets is worth taking.


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