Steve Smith edges closer to return

Steve Smith has taken a significant step towards a return to international cricket as he nears the end of his 12 month suspension for ball-tampering. Smith, of course, received the punishment after failing to prevent teammates David Warner and Cameron Bancroft attempting to alter the state of the ball using sandpaper during a Test match against South Africa last March.

Smith is eligible to return to the line-up on the 29th of March, two games before the end of Australia's upcoming ODI series against Pakistan. The ICC World Cup starts a couple of months later, and that has always appeared to be the likely date for his return.

However, an elbow injury jeopardised this possibility. He returned home early from the Bangladesh Premier League – which he was permitted to play in – in order to have surgery on the elbow, which is believed to have ensured that he won't play in either of the last two ODI's against Pakistan. The greater focus, however, has always been his availability for the World Cup, and in recent days he confirmed his likelihood of being ready by that time.

Smith posted a video of himself in the nets on Instagram, stating 'Great to have my first hit back today. The elbow is feeling good!'. Coach Justin Langer, who has continually reiterated the constant dialogue he has had with Smith (and Warner) in regards to their integration back into the team, stated that Smith 'should be ready for the IPL', which will take place in the months prior to the World Cup. This tournament will act as a stepping stone for Smith as he returns to the competitive arena.

Warner, too, has faced troubles in the lead up to the end of his suspension. Like Smith, he was forced to return home early from the Bangladesh Premier League as a result of – you guessed it – an elbow injury. However, his was always regarded as the less serious of the two, and his ability to recover from the World Cup was never in question. Langer also stated that he expected Warner to be ready for the IPL, meaning the only barriers to him returning to Australia's international ODI side would be a result of concerns about his reintegration after his alleged leading role in the ball-tampering incident, rather than concerns about his fitness.

Indeed, these question marks have been raised throughout the suspensions of both players, in particular in relation to Warner. However, as Australia's on-field performances have continued to wane, the likelihood of the two returning for the World Cup has appeared to increase, particularly given the importance of the event to Cricket Australia.

Australia, of course, has been a dominant side in world cricket this century, and have incredibly won four of the past five World Cups – the lone exception being in 2011, when they were knocked out in the Quarter Finals. In recent years, however, their performance has begun to dwindle, and the suspension of their two best batsmen (and the leadership that goes with them) has had a major impact on the team.

Over the summer, these problems became more palpable than ever. They first hosted South Africa for a three game ODI series and were beaten 2-1. Unsurprisingly, it was their batting that posed the greatest problem – in the first match they were bowled out for 152, before they managed to bowl their way to victory after being all out for 231 in the second. In the third, after being set 320 to win, they put in their best batting performacne of the series but still fell 40 runs short.

Then it was India's turn to visit. After losing their first ever Test series to a visiting India side, Australia were shown up by one of, if not the, best batting units in the world in the ODI series. The home side managed a 34 run victory in Game 1 of the series but struggled thereafter. In both games they batted first, and thought they put up a very reasonable 298 in the second match, were chased down relatively easily by India. Both games took until the final over for the visitors to secure, but were won by six and seven wickets respectively, with the comparative talent of the Indian batting lineup evident.

Now, the Australians find themselves sixth in the world ODI rankings, a rare occurrence for a team which has been in the top two or three, if not first, for much of the past two decades. They will head into the World Cup as the fifth or sixth most favoured team, something to which they are not at all accustomed.

Without Warner and Smith, their odds would be even longer. They still have some talent in their batting linuep and plenty in their bowling lineup, but their lack of depth without their best two players is exposed and they would simply find themselves unable to compete with the best teams in the world on the biggest stage.

The return of Warner and Smith alone won't be enough to make up the gap between Australia and likes of India and England. However, as two of the best batsmen in the world, they will make a significant difference. Any concerns the Australian coaching staff might have about simultaneously bringing two dominant players back into a team which has existed without them for over a year will surely be alleviated by what they will bring to the table on the field.

Australia will not exactly be favourites heading into the tournament even with Smith and Warner, but they will certainly be a much better chance to find their way into its latter stages. Question marks about their health, in particular that of Smith, would have been legitimate concerns for the Australians despite the fact that the two players aren't currently in the team. They will presumably still have enormous roles to play in the World Cup, the Ashes that follows and the years to come, and that they will both be healthy in time for the biggest tournament in cricket will be a huge relief to Australian fans.