Posted by: tootingtrumpet | November 27, 2017

Steven Smith – the man who hides his genius in plain sight

Steven Smith’s head – solving Test cricket.

I was at Lord’s in 2010 to witness Steven Smith’s debut in Australia’s curio of a Test series against Pakistan hosted by MCC. If you had asked me then what I thought of the unheralded all-rounder, I’d have said, “Who? Oh him? Looks a bit like the young SK Warne with that blond hair and puppy fat, but his action is probably a bit too ropey to forge a career as a leg-spinner.” And, of course, I was 100% correct – and 100% wrong.

Smith showed his batting potential for the first time in 2013 with 92 in Chandigarh, an innings immediately overshadowed by Mitchell Starc’s 99 from Number 9 and then Shikhar Dhawan’s pyrotechnic 187 on debut. Even his maiden century was made in the wake of Shane Watson’s redemptive 176 at The Oval in a dead rubber with England already 3-0 up and holding the Urn. That was his 12th Test and the knock lifted his batting average to 34, complementing a bowling average of 49 – a bits and pieces merchant of the kind England’s fans had suffered enough of to recognise at a distance of 10,553 miles.

But Australia’s selectors saw him differently. By design or chance, Smith had become a “project player” like Stephen Waugh and Shane Watson before him, someone in whom the investment in development would only pay off in the long term. And hasn’t it? In 2014 he averaged 82, in 2015 74, in 2016 72 and in 2017 65; with power to add. His statistics show that he’s not so much vying with highly rated contemporaries, the soi disant Fab Four Virat Kohli, Joe Root and Kane Williamson, to be saluted as the best batsman in the world today, but with Herbert Sutcliffe, Kenny Barrington and Everton Weeks to be hailed as the second best batsman in history: Bradman’s heir not only as Australia’s captain.

How did he get here?

Amidst all the talk about his unorthodox technique, his candidacy for LBW and his favouring the onside, Smith has, as so many geniuses do, simplified his game to a few fundamentals that are then applied with an iron will.

No matter how much he moves about in the crease in order to work the ball into the gaps on the leg side, at the precise instant that the ball strikes the bat, his head is in line with it. The importance of the head’s positioning in promoting the balance required for any sport cannot be overstated and Smith gets it right, hour after hour after bloody hour. The contrast with Joe Root’s occasional propensity to fall across his front pad and be pinned LBW (as he was in the second innings in Brisbane) is marked – not least because against good bowlers, it’s a mistake top batsmen cannot afford to make, the kind that turns centuries into half-centuries.

Not only is the head in line with the ball, it is also still at the point of impact. Smith’s exaggerated excursions from off to leg as the bowler gathers for the delivery means that he is where he wants to be in plenty of time to ensure that his head is freeze framed at the crucial moment. It is this aspect to his play that suggests a certain ugliness because, particularly against spin, he can look a little jerky as he moves out of the calm centre of the tornado and gets on the move again to complete the shot (especially in the case pulling and cutting off the front foot). Smith will never flow through his strokes like Mark Waugh or David Gower to provoke the pundits purring, but if he has to settle for an average almost 20 runs higher than those two beauties, I reckon he’ll take it.

The final element discernible when observing Smith’s head is a product of the most unorthodox aspect of his batting – the fact that he seems to play a lot of “French cricket”, his legs together, face on to the bowler. That position allows both his eyes, dead level, to watch the ball all the way on to the bat, reversing the oft asserted proposition that cricket is a side-on game. I suggest that this two-eyed vision assists in fostering the preternatural hand-eye coordination that ensures not just that bat hits ball, but that the middle of the bat hits the middle of the ball with an uncanny frequency, even when it feels like it shouldn’t.

If it’s easy to see the outside of Smith’s head, it’s almost as easy to discover what’s going on inside it too.

Unchallenged as captain, even through runs of poor overseas results as a team and as settled at Number 4 as any batsman can be, Smith uses that security to play a patient game, immune to any criticism about scoring too slowly (or too quickly), protected by a carapace of achievement that brooks no quarrel. Unlike many batsmen these days, he appears to hold a picture of the field in his head (viz a cute leg glance for four at Brisbane the very next ball after Root had moved his leg slip to silly point) and he won’t be suckered into “taking the fielder on” with testosterone-fuelled hooks or slogs. That said, he also knows when to up the scoring rate as bowlers tire, when to launch a calculated attack to reduce an opposing captain’s options and he adopts that most Australian of attitudes to the fall of a wicket – seeing it as a chance to attack and wrest the initiative back in a matter of minutes. He may bat in a bubble, but he bats for his team.

England have to find a way to dismiss him (or, as in Brisbane, be condemned to work through the eight batsmen at the other end) and that looks tricky on good pitchess – well, it’s a big ask on a less than perfect wicket, as his brilliant 111 earlier this year at Pune showed. What do I think? I’d attack him early from a right arm round the wicket line (as Jimmy Anderson did at Adelaide), shortish under the left armpit with a leg slip, a man on the hook and a short leg, with a variation fullish outside off with three slips. But if it was guaranteed gamechanger, all captains would do it. And if Smith’s esoteric approach to batting was as straightforward as I’m making it sound, all batsmen would do it too.

Test match cricket isn’t an easy game to master and nobody does so for long – except the aforementioned sporting outlier of outliers, Don Bradman. But Steven Smith got as close as anyone to solving it across 512 minutes of unparalleled, undefeated batsmanship at the Gabba and, overnight at the WACA, he’s joining the dots on his way to another match-defining big one. It can’t last can it? But we said that in 2014 – and we’re still waiting.

 

 

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Responses

  1. As I said elsewhere, we should just enjoy him while we can.

  2. He still looks like the work experience kid (as does Joe).

  3. The point about the head is well-made and essential. I remember writing something very similar about Virender Sehwag back when people were still trying to work out the roots of his genius. I mentioned Jimmy White (another Tooting man) too, as an example of someone who could appear unorthodox but had the technical fundamentals of his sport down pat.

    • Good point re our own Jimmy. I’ve heard the same said about Jim Furyk’s swing – it’s hopeless at all points except when it hits the ball. When, of course, it’s perfect.


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