Aussies' T20 openers revealed, but Smith's role less clear

With Australia boasting a settled top order and strong middle order, how – or if – Steve Smith fits into the mix is an intriguing subplot

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David Warner and Travis Head seem set to open for Australia at the upcoming T20 World Cup after they were confirmed as the first-wicket pairing in this week's three-match series against New Zealand, but Steve Smith's role in the starting XI remains less clear.

Speaking prior to tomorrow's opening T20I at Wellington's Sky Stadium, which kicks off Australia's month-long Qantas Tour of New Zealand, skipper Mitchell Marsh also confirmed he will remain in the number three role he has made his own in the 20-over format over recent years.

And given Glenn Maxwell's recent success at number four, where he blasted a memorable 120 from 55 balls against West Indies nine days ago, and Tim David's consistent contributions at six in that Dettol T20I campaign, Australia's top order seems largely settled ahead of the World Cup in June.

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With keeper-batters Josh Inglis and Matthew Wade (who will miss the start of the NZ series due to the birth of his and wife Julia's third child) to slot in, and allrounder Marcus Stoinis also in the mix despite being absent from the current tour due to back soreness, Smith's role is seemingly undefined.

The 34-year-old was rested from the recent West Indies series but opened alongside this season's BBL top scorer Matt Short (also in the NZ touring party) in his previous T20I outing, which came against India in the wake of Australia's ODI World Cup success last November.

Despite admitting "our top order is pretty set" when asked about his team's planning, Marsh added that few of the 15-member squad in NZ are expected to play all three matches over the coming six days and gave nothing away when quizzed on the likely middle-order set-up.

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"You'll have to find out, we'll announce our team at the toss," Marsh said in response to a query about Maxwell and Smith's batting roles against NZ.

"There will be certain guys that probably bat in different positions than they have done in the past, but ultimately we're here to win the series.

"I've batted three for the last 18 months, so I'll be there to start with.

"And obviously Heady and Davey Warner have been amazing for us over the last period of time, so I daresay that will be the top three.

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"I think players like Tim (David) are a rarity, and it (number six) is probably the hardest role within T20 cricket. We're lucky to have him.

"He's become a phenomenal player in that role and there's no doubt he's going to play a big part for us."

The three-match series against the Black Caps, which also includes matches at Auckland's Eden Park on Friday and Sunday, represents Australia's last bilateral T20 hit-out before the World Cup gets underway in the Caribbean and USA.

The 2021 Cup champions will be significantly boosted by the inclusion of star fast-bowling duo Pat Cummins and Mitchell Starc who will be making their first T20I appearances since the previous iteration of the format's global showpiece in Australia in late 2022.

With fellow Test seamer Josh Hazlewood also in the squad for the NZ tour, Marsh has a full-strength bowling complement at his disposal rounded out by white-ball spinner Adam Zampa and auxiliary quicks Nathan Ellis and Spencer Johnson.

Marsh, who has not been formally appointed Aaron Finch's replacement as Australia T20 captain and continues to lead on a series-by-series basis, joked he was looking forward to the opportunity to pull rank on Test and ODI skipper Cummins.

"I can't wait to tell him what to do," Marsh said of the role reversal.

"I'm normally filling in for his press conferences when he's had enough, so I'll get him back at some stage.

"But I also feel pretty lucky to have somebody like Pat as another leader within our group to fall back on, and the experienced heads we've got that will help me in certain times throughout this series.

"I just think their experience (Cummins and Starc), certainly at this level and the three of them (with Hazlewood) work together so well.

"We're lucky to have those guys back. Over the international schedule you don't see those guys play a lot of T20 international cricket together so to have them back and building towards a World Cup is great."

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The return of experienced multi-format players came after Australia completed a clean sweep of their three-game Dettol ODI series against West Indies and triumphed 2-1 in the subsequent T20 battle.

That campaign featured a number of relatively untried players including allrounder Aaron Hardie (who was to have replaced Stoinis for the NZ tour until he suffered calf soreness in last week's Marsh Sheffield Shield round) and promising seam bowler Xavier Bartlett.

Marsh saw good signs against West Indies as Australia fine-tuned their preparation ahead of the return journey to the Caribbean for the World Cup, among them the win in Adelaide where Maxwell's innings saw them recover from early trouble at 3-64 to post a winning total of 4-241.

"I thought the way we batted was really impressive, in terms of our ability to just keep going," Marsh said when asked what his team had learned from their most recent hit-out.

"There were moments when we lost early wickets but one of the things I want from us is to make sure we're backing our skill no matter what.

"That may look ugly at times, but I think we've got a team that bats right down to eight or nine and can really apply pressure with the bat.

"There were lots of positives, we blooded some young guys – Bartlett came in and did really well in his first game for Australia.

"And whilst we look ahead – and it happens a lot in international cricket especially in World Cup years – we're here to win the series, and one of our strong points is remaining present."

Qantas Tour of New Zealand

February 21: First T20, Wellington, 5.10pm AEDT

February 23: Second T20, Auckland, 5.10pm AEDT

February 25: Third T20, Auckland, 11am AEDT

Australia T20 squad: Mitchell Marsh (c), Pat Cummins, Tim David, Nathan Ellis, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Josh Inglis, Spencer Johnson, Glenn Maxwell, Matt Short, Steve Smith, Mitchell Starc, Matthew Wade, David Warner, Adam Zampa

New Zealand T20 squad: Finn Allen, Devon Conway, Tim Seifert, Rachin Ravindra, Glenn Phillips, Mark Chapman, Josh Clarkson, Mitchell Santner (c), Matt Henry, Ish Sodhi, Lockie Ferguson, Tim Southee, Adam Milne, Trent Boult

February 29 – March 4: First Test, Wellington, 9am AEDT

March 8-12: Second Test, Christchurch, 9am AEDT

Australia Test squad: Pat Cummins (c), Scott Boland, Alex Carey, Cameron Green, Josh Hazlewood, Travis Head, Usman Khawaja, Marnus Labuschagne, Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Marsh, Michael Neser, Matthew Renshaw, Steve Smith (vc), Mitchell Starc

New Zealand Test squad: Tim Southee (c), Tom Blundell (wk), Devon Conway, Matt Henry, Scott Kuggeleijn, Tom Latham, Daryl Mitchell, Will O'Rourke, Glenn Phillips, Rachin Ravindra, Mitchell Santner, Neil Wagner, Kane Williamson, Will Young.