Australia cricket legend Ricky Ponting has used the latest episode of The ICC Review to dissect Steve Smith's current form, predict who is the best chance to usurp England's Joe Root as the top ranked red-ball batter and provide his thoughts on the current World Test Championship race.
Ponting has been keeping a close eye on the recent plight of Smith at Test level and hasn't noticed too much difference in the way the right-hander has been approaching the game.
But he says opposition sides have worked out smarter plans on how to combat Smith and the former Australia captain only recently broke an 18-month drought without a century when he reached triple figures during the second Test against Sri Lanka in Galle.
Steve Smith's form
While Smith has 28 Test centuries to his name for Australia, only two of those have come since the Ashes series in England in 2019 and his unbeaten 145 against Sri Lanka earlier this month was the first time he had reached triple figures since his brilliant hundred against India at the start of 2021.
Smith has scored seven half centuries during that span and Ponting said the 33-year-old is not consistently producing as many high scores as he would like to.
"The best way to describe it is, it (Smith's form) has been indifferent," Ponting told Sanjana Ganesan on The ICC Review.
"For four or five years, he has been so incredibly consistent, making consistently high scores, making four, five or six hundreds in a Test match calendar year and he hasn't been able to do that in the last couple of years.
"I have watched him quite closely, and I don’t think there is anything technically there that has changed too much.
"Opposition teams maybe have finally started to work out the way they can slow him down from scoring quickly or have found some ways to attack him and get him out.
"But knowing Steve and how well he prepares himself and how deeply he thinks about his game, I don’t think it’s going to be too long before you see him back there scoring heavily again.”
Is Joe Root’s mantle as the No.1 Test batter in danger?
Root was recently rewarded for his excellent red-ball form when he overtook Australia's Marnus Labuschagne as the top ranked Test batter, but there are a host of key batters around the world lining up to overtake the Englishman.
England have three Test matches against South Africa next month where Root will get the chance to extend his lead at the top of the batter rankings, but after that they don't play any red-ball cricket until they tour New Zealand in February next year.
That means Labuschagne and Smith will get plenty of opportunities to make ground on the in-form right-hander, with Australia hosting West Indies and South Africa during their upcoming summer for a total of five Test matches on home soil.
"Yeah, potentially (both Labuschagne and Smith could overtake Root this summer)" Ponting said.
"Both of those guys have outstanding records in Australia. I think looking back at last week, it was Marnus’ first hundred (against Sri Lanka) outside Australia.
"In saying that, it’s been in Australia in the last couple of years where Smith has had most troubles.
"Marnus was on record recently saying that it might just be the opening of the floodgates again for Steve Smith.
"I think it’s been 16-17 innings for him without a Test hundred – that doesn't happen too often.
"Joe Root has been exactly the opposite. Every time he has gone out to bat in the last 18 months or two years, he’s made a hundred, particularly against India. His record against India has been absolutely outstanding.
"One thing I know is his class is permanent.
"Whether it's Smith or Labuschagne or even Virat, when he bounces back to his career-best form, any one of those guys – and Babar Azam is another one – they can overtake Root in the next few months."
India tour of West Indies
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Race for World Test Championship final hotting up
South Africa currently lead the World Test Championship standings, but Australia are snapping at their heels in second place following their recent drawn series against Sri Lanka away from home.
Pakistan, India, West Indies and Sri Lanka are also in contention to finish in the top two on the standings and reach the final, with Ponting stressing the importance of Australia's tour of India early next year as the crucial series that may decide the finalists.
"I think Australia's chances really hinge on the upcoming Indian tour to be honest, and India’s chances are a little bit the same," Ponting noted.
"It is always a much-anticipated series – Australia and India, whether it be in Australia or in India – it’s much hyped up and talked about, the rivalry between the two countries is just growing year on year.
Who else can feature in the World Test Championship final?
Ponting suggested South Africa have been the surprise packet of the World Test Championship so far, with the Proteas having enjoyed success against India and Bangladesh at home among their five Test triumphs during this current period.
"South Africa has been a stand out so far," Ponting said
"Their record at home is absolutely outstanding, they’re a very hard team to beat at home as we just saw with Sri Lanka as well.
"A little bit of doom and gloom in the Sri Lankan cricket in the last couple of years, but for them to be sitting where they are and to beat a good Australian side in that Test match just bit over a week ago, there are a lot of really good, positive signs for them going forward.
"Pakistan’s ability to continually be up there and be talked about on the back of not playing much international cricket at home for such a long period of time, it just shows how passionate they are about the game and how many truly great players that country has able to produce year after year."
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